I wasn't going to, but here are a few thoughts on the debate around Rachel Smalley's comments about John Campbell's new job and the dominance of white male broadcasters in primetime.

I've been sitting here dithering whether I should write something about Rachel Smalley's critique of broadcasting as a male bastion. Or rather, her attack on John Campbell, depending on which way you view it.

It's one of those classic debates where everyone involved has one hand on a portion of the truth but, because it's a good argument – and somewhat personal – no-one really wants to either back down or get dragged in too deep.

Smalley's point that men dominate the airwaves is factually indisputable and should be of concern. It's an ongoing issue and worth debating, because Smalley's right to ask who is shaping the views of young women today. Her problem is how and when she raised it.

It was in the context of Campbell's appointment to the RNZ drive show. Smalley has history with Campbell – as a frustrated potential replacement who left the company because he was in her way – and so, as Finlay MacDonald tweeted at the weekend, it wasn't the wider point but "the graceless and simplistic way it was raised that grated". Second, as she acknowledged in her commentary, yes, looked like self-promotion. Third, she picked on a nice man and good journalist who is New Zealand's favourite martyr at the moment, especially amongst those who would normally care about gender diversity. Fourth, she made her point about how women see the world differently through some rather clumsy stereotypes (women care about the "humanity" of the Middle East, but men only care about the battles? Really?).

Oh, and by all accounts from RNZ she got it wrong when she talked about Mary Wilson being "taken off air" to "accommodate" Campbell.

Yet strip away the personalities and delivery and the point itself is a fair one. Heck, it's probably worse than she portrays in some ways, because she chooses not to add the likes of Leighton Smith and Sean Plunket into her list of male hosts (I get that she doesn't count their morning shows as primetime). Weirdly, Jim Mora is ommitted from her list. Or is that some kind of compliment?

Yet on the other hand, she also ignores the likes of Kim Hill and Kathryn Ryan who, while not primetime, have two of the most influential shows on air.

New Zealand would benefit from more diversity amongst its hosts, undoubtedly. But the problem goes deeper – beyond individual appointments and even newsroom cultures – to the expectations and stereotypes around young women today. There's the question of how women presenters are meant to look. Which roles in media women are meant to seek. And the roles women are meant to take in their families.

So four quick points I'd make.

The six men Smalley mentions are not exactly time-servers or have had anything handed to them by a male fraternity. And – unlike, say, their pronunciation or preparation – their gender is something they can't change. They are all talented question-askers and there's a reason they each have a following. Let's be honest and acknowledge that they wouldn't have the jobs if people weren't endorsing them by listening. I've been privileged to produce two of them (Guyon and Duncan), have been on-air for years with a third (Larry) and know John and Paul as colleagues. Mike Hosking is the only one I don't know. And one way or another, love 'em or hate 'em, they've all earned it.

Of those that I know or have worked with, they've all had women bosses. And that's a key point that's worth noting in this debate that is very different from the newsrooms of a generation ago. There are probably other examples, but as much as I know: Guyon has been produced by Maryanne Ahern, John by Pip Keane, Larry by Melita Tull and Paul by Sarah Bristow. Duncan has worked for Linda Clark. It was Carol Hirschfeld who hired Campbell last week. As much as the marketing sometimes belies this, news and current affairs is not just about the host. Of course they have significant power, but the host is only one part of the machine and those women are all providing a "well rounded media" and are "shaping" news coverage. I can't think of a programme I know that doesn't have very influential women producers calling shots.

Next, you can only work with the talent in front of you. And, while I'd be happy if someone is able to prove me wrong, I don't see many talented women broadcasters as good as those six dominant men and who can deliver an audience who are knocking down the doors. I'm fortunate to work with one of the best, Lisa Owen, on The Nation. As an exception to my point, she can – and each week she does – match any of those dominant men in a studio. But she is an exception.

Maybe it's because of the sexism that remains in society, because of media cultures, or because many women can't/won't pay the price required to do these jobs. But the pickings are slim. Point is, the only way to address this issue with any urgency is to appoint women over men, but I just don't see who it is you'd appoint.

Finally, there is diversity amongst these men. That's not to say gender and ethnicity diversity is not important or excuse anything. It's simply worth noting that that they bring different world views, ask different sorts of questions in different ways and reflect different sectors of New Zealand. No, they're not representative of 2015 Aotearoa, but neither are they all dinosaurs.

Comments (12)

by Andrew Geddis on August 10, 2015
Andrew Geddis

And, while I'd be happy if someone is able to prove me wrong, I don't see many talented women broadcasters as good as those six dominant men and who can deliver an audience who are knocking down the doors.

Without wanting to put words into Rachel Smalley's mouth (and I really haven't been following this debate at all, so have no real insight into it), might she not respond that this is because women broadcasters simply aren't given the chance to prove that they can do so because every time a slot opens up it goes to the same old "safe" option? 

by Tim Watkin on August 10, 2015
Tim Watkin

She might. But my point is that I don't see anyone in that 'at the door' position ready to be offered the chance. Having gone through this at some length at the start of 2014 before we hired Lisa Owen... and having gone through it in my head when I was trying to imagine who might be possibles for Story... I really don't see many, if any. (I can think of maybe one who's close, but who I'd be reluctant to bet on).

There's a really tough chicken and egg argument here. You don't know unless you try, but these days more than ever you can't afford to experiment and fail in primetime, or you could lose your slot to another cooking show. That's the same in many professions, but in these few jobs we're talking about big and unusually public risks.

And I'd also add that few men get a shot as well, and I don't see many men on the cusp either. Going through the same exercise re Story for blokes, Duncan was the only person I could imagine Mediaworks turning to at this time.

by Kyle Matthews on August 10, 2015
Kyle Matthews

I don't think I agree with Smalley's argument, but of the 7 broadcasters she listed (Suzie Ferguson being the female), it's difficult to see diversity in a lineup of white males. Yes they have differing political perspectives, but has the media not learnt from Roastbusters in terms of who gets appointed?

by Ewan Morris on August 10, 2015
Ewan Morris

You started out well, but I found your four points pretty unconvincing.

They are all talented question-askers

Mike Hosking? Paul Henry? Seriously?

they've all earned it

Mike Hosking? Paul Henry? What on earth have they done to 'earn it'?

I don't see many talented women broadcasters as good as those six dominant men and who can deliver an audience who are knocking down the doors.

Maybe we need to start thinking differently about what being 'good' means, and what will attract an audience? If Mike Hosking is 'good', then heaven help us!

by Murray Grimwood on August 11, 2015
Murray Grimwood

Actually, with the full exception of Kim Hill and the partial exceptions of Crump, Chapman and once in a blue moon Mora, nobody at RNZ ranks as a 'good journalist. (in my humble opinion :)

( I confine this to RNZ because it is public (and therefore theoretically capable of disengaging itself from that projected by commercial sources, whose income streams, according to the Pope, are based on something other than the truth).

Ryan too often fails to unfetter herself from pre-held mantra, Mora ditto. News and Business are hopeless in this regard, regularly repeating challengeable assertions unchallenged. Too often Ferguson and Wilson end up repeating tabloid questions of  'you must have been shocked' nature, begging the question as to whether they are doing this under ratings-driven instruction, or for lack of research into meatier topics.

Collectively, they reflect the fact that  our whole societal conversation is overwhelmed by an unchallenged - and I assert, false - assumption about the unimpeachability of 'money',

  This is probably the best precis of the question that all media - RNZ fully included - are avoiding (and not for want of prodding, let me add!):


Read it and weep. With the above exceptions, no NZ journalist has gone anywhere near asking the integrated/systemic question - and there are no bigger - asked by that piece. In consequence, we are left discussing trivia based on false assumptions.

Frankly, Tim, I don't give a damn what sex they are, I only ask that they boldly attempt to ascertain the truth. I will laud them if they do, and castigate them if they don't. (Note: not 'my' truth, that's opinion, but 'the' truth' which boils down to investigation-derived fact).

I suggest - politely - that this discourse smacks of 'trivia based on false assumptions'. At this stage in societal proceedings, a quick investigation of denial and/or cognitive dissonance might be a useful precursor to the good journalism we are so lacking.

Sex is indeed one of the problems, not of the presenter but of a seriously overpopulated planet. What we need is journalists of either sex who can research dispassionately, and kick-start the needed debate before it is too late.

If it isn't already.

Laudato si' (24 May 2015) | Francis - La Santa Sede

'..... It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, ..... [106] '

by Nic on August 11, 2015

As Andrew Geddis says, Smalley's question is why you "don't see many talented women broadcasters as good as those six dominant men and who can deliver an audience who are knocking down the doors"?  Could it be that the guys are getting breaks as they climb up the career ladder that the women don't get?

There are setbacks that women face as they climb through the ranks in the professions that men don't see, let alone get.  Take this recent example.  Researchers did an experiment with university course evaluations.  A female professor taught an online course.  Half the course knew her as Dave and the other half knew her as Jane.  When she got the evaluations, the students who thought she was Dave gave her consistently higher evaluations than the students who thought she was Jane.  This was including for things like, 'gets the assessment back on time'.  In other words, for a woman to get the same evaluations she has to be much better than a man.  Or, put the other way, a mediocre bloke can score just as well in evaluations as a much more talented woman. 

Women in the professions know that they are up against this bias.  Most of the time we ignore it and just get on with it.  But it is very important that enlightened commentators like you, Tim, pause to reflect on what it might be like for a woman making her way in a profession to discover that she is, say, being paid a third less than a less competent colleague, to have someone assume she is the secretary, to be told she can't get proper credit for her work because the senior bloke has a bigger name than her, or to be patronised at a conference by some young Johnny-come-lately. 

These are all real life examples from people close to me.  No man I have spoken to has routinely experienced these things.  I would be very surprised if these biases aren't present in broadcasting.  Maybe that's part of the reason that you can't think of a good woman broadcaster who could have taken Mary Wilson's place.

by Tim Watkin on August 11, 2015
Tim Watkin

Kyle, don't get the Roastbusters point. As I said, we do need more diversity in gender and ethnicity, but you do have very different styles in those people.

Ewan, you may not like those people and the lines they take. But if you take the politics and personality out of it and look at their broadcast skill alone, they are good at what they do and few people can do it well.

Murray, while everyone is going to have an opinion on this (and as I'm saying to Ewan, often it's a matter of who you like, tho that's different from skill) from a journalistic point of view that's just nonsense. Todd Niall covers Akld very very well. Mary Wilson is surgical. Guyon Espiner has a stellar career as one of the best around. They have kick-started more debates than we've had hot dinners.

What you call 'tabloid questions' are often designed to draw people out and provide grabs for news bulletins, which is part of the job. Your framing through a single 'money' lens isn't a way to run a complex news business.

And if you're saying you don't care about their gender, you are kinda ignoring Smalley's entire point!

by Ewan Morris on August 11, 2015
Ewan Morris

Tim, what is it you think Mike Hosking does and how is he good at it? I mean that as a serious question. What is his skill?

by Kyle Matthews on August 12, 2015
Kyle Matthews

Hi Tim,

Roastbusters - I was hinting at the four Radio Live presenters listed in this story: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11155359. Three males screwed up how they dealt with the issue, two were fired, and the female presenter is the frustrated one throwing her hands in the air saying "don't you get it?".

If male presenters aren't going to get it (and some clearly will, but not in this instance), then more female presenters is a logical answer to try and do better. And I'd suggest that Maori presenters would be a good start as well.

You can argue both ways on whether news media staff need to be a particular gender or ethnicity to best do parts of their jobs. But clearly there's some truth to that argument for some media staff/outlets.

Surely that's Smalley's argument.

by Tim Watkin on August 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Ewan, he's not someone I listen to very often and I can't speak with any certainty about the quality of his work, unlike the others. But he's quick (one of the quickest around), his vocab is wide and clear and his questions precise and to the point, he has a good sense of how to push people's buttons, and he had held the biggest breakfast in NZ for most of his time at ZB. Anyone who can stay atop the ratings pile has skill, whether you like his style or not.

by Tim Watkin on August 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Kyle, I get your point. Yes, the woman got that one. But... so did a quintessential white male right-winger Matthew Hooton, who abused the guys on air for their mishandling. Also, one of the mishandlers was Maori, which undermines your point somewhat. Whereas some of those white males in the other list have done more sensitive interviews on such things... Now I'm playing devil's advocate a bit and don't disagree with the diversity point, as I've said. On such issues, of course a woman interviewer's perspective would be good. But if you look at the interviews on Roastbusters by all those males, you will see some diversity (I imagine, not having listened to them all!). And, as mentioned, the women producing those men will be demanding they ask certain questions too.

by Ross on August 13, 2015

To be honest, I couldn't really follow Smalley's logic. 

TV3 lost a white male and RNZ picked up a white male. So the net effect was zero. More than zero and Smalley might have had a point, assuming of course that a superior female candidate was overlooked.

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