(First published in The Dominion Post, December 15.)
Don Brash made two big mistakes recently.
The first was to think he could criticise a high-profile Radio New Zealand presenter on Facebook and get away with it. The second and much bigger mistake was to accept an invitation to explain himself on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show.
Inevitably, Brash was savaged. It was as close as RNZ will ever get to blood sport as entertainment.
I gave up listening after 15 minutes. By that time Brash had been hanged and drawn and I didn’t care to stick around for the quartering.
The metaphor is apt because being hanged, drawn and quartered was once the punishment for treason, and Brash had committed an act which was treasonous in the extreme: He had criticised Morning Report host Guyon Espiner for what Brash regarded as his excessive use of the Maori language.
Brash described Espiner’s flaunting of his fluency in te reo as “virtue signalling” – in other words, displaying one’s superior moral and cultural values.
For this offence against the spirit of biculturalism, the former National and ACT leader was summoned for a discipline session with Radio NZ’s resident dominatrix.
The result was entirely predictable. Hill was acerbic and sneering from the outset.
She didn’t bother to conceal her contempt for Brash and neither did she bother to maintain any pretence that this was a routine interview, conducted for the purpose of eliciting information or expanding public understanding of the issue.
It was a demolition job, pure and simple – utu, if you prefer – and I doubt that it was ever intended to be anything else. Its purpose was to expose Brash as a political and cultural dinosaur and to punish him for criticising Hill’s colleague.
Had it been a boxing bout, it would have been declared a mismatch and called off after the first round. Hill was in her natural milieu – home-ground advantage, you might say, in her familiar personal domain with an unseen crowd of adoring fans urging her on.
Hill doesn’t hesitate to use her command of the medium to chew up and spit out anyone whose political views she doesn’t approve of. Brash didn’t stand a chance.
But being Brash, he was civil. He addressed Hill throughout by her first name, as if hoping they could be mates. He would have had more luck trying to pat the head of a komodo dragon.
What on earth made him go on Hill’s show in the first place? Vanity, perhaps, or the misguided hope that he could appeal to Hill’s better nature. Faint chance.
Of course there will be those who say Brash is a political and cultural dinosaur who deserved everything he got. But the last time I checked, you were allowed to criticise Radio New Zealand in a Facebook post without having to undergo a public disembowelment.
Here’s where we get down to the real issue. RNZ is a public institution. It belongs to us.
The public who fund the organisation and pay its presenters' salaries are entitled to criticise it. But can we now expect that anyone who has the temerity to do so will be subjected to a mauling by RNZ’s in-house attack dog? Or is this treatment reserved for despised white conservative males such as Brash, to make an example of them and deter others from similar foolishness?
Either way, Hill’s dismemberment of Brash was a brazen abuse of the state broadcaster’s power and showed contemptuous disregard for RNZ’s charter obligation to be impartial and balanced.
This is nothing new, of course. The quaint notion that RNZ exists for all New Zealanders was quietly jettisoned years ago. Without any mandate, the state broadcaster has refashioned itself as a platform for the promotion of favoured causes.
You’re more likely to see an aardvark driving a tractor down The Terrace than to hear a conservative voice, or even a middle-of-the-road one, on smug groupthink fests such as RNZ’s current series of Smart Talk.
Brash has a perfectly valid point. Whatever the benefits of learning te reo, it is not the function of the state broadcaster to engage in social engineering projects for our collective betterment – for example, by encouraging us to refer to Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau and Christchurch as Otautahi, as now seems to be the practice of some RNZ reporters.
RNZ does many things very well and my quality of life would be greatly diminished without it, but no one will ever die wondering about the political leanings of many of its presenters and producers.
And clearly, no one should expect any restraint to be imposed on them by their bosses – in fact probably less so than ever under an indulgent Labour-led government.