Rachel Smalley.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Rachel Smalley’s criticism of “white men” dominating the New Zealand media has raised a lot of important questions about power, politics and the media. But her “identity politics” arguments have not gone unchallenged.

Who has power in New Zealand society? This question is central to the debate sparked by broadcaster Rachel Smalley in her criticism of John Campbell’s appointment to Radio New Zealand last week. See her controversial column here: Campbell’s new role ‘extremely disappointing’. Her critique is essentially an “identity politics” argument, which sees those in leading media roles as being characterised by their gender and ethnicity. She argues the media can correct this imbalance of power by appointing fewer white males like John Campbell and more non-white males, or women, to these top roles. 

Smalley has followed up with another column, I’ve been called sexist and sour but I won’t back down: we need more women on prime-time radio. She reiterates that “prime time radio, which achieves the greatest audiences, should not be straight, white and male either. It must reflect diversity of perspective, gender and culture”.

Such identity politics arguments are increasingly important in New Zealand politics and debate and, unsurprisingly, they always create a storm of debate. As usual, much of this has occurred on Twitter, and for some of the more interesting reactions – for and against – see my blog post Top tweets about Rachel Smalley’s white-male critique of NZ media.

The debate has been particularly interesting because of the central focus on John Campbell. Normally identity politics critiques of the media would focus their firepower on “white male” broadcasters such as Paul Henry or Mike Hosking, who are seen as rightwing or conservative. But because Smalley’s message was targeted at one of the more progressive “white male” broadcasters, this produced something of a dilemma for many on the liberal left who might normally be receptive to a critique of male pakeha power. Some have been uncomfortable with the notion of having to choose whether to defend Campbell, or side with Smalley’s critique of white-male dominance. 

Supporting Smalley

Smalley’s campaign has won support from an array of figures in the media, politics and society. Fellow Newstalk ZB broadcaster Jack Tame has spoken out publicly in her defence – see Stuff’s Rachel Smalley not unreasonable to want more, Jack Tame says.

One of Smalley’s more surprising allies has been National MP Judith Collins ‏(@JudithCollinsMP), who tweeted to Smalley to say, “Well done for stating the obvious yesterday. Shame some can’t take the truth”. 

Of course, identity politics is increasingly being utilised by the right as well as the left. And every institution of power is being critiqued for representational imbalances. So, it’s no longer just an objective of the left, but also the Establishment, to break the glass ceiling for women in business and bring other traditionally marginalised or oppressed groups into powerful positions and institutions. 

One of the more interesting defences of Smalley’s argument has come from the Herald’s Lee Suckling, who says that he’s “the only gay columnist writing regularly for a mainstream media outlet about the issues that affect the LGBT community” – see: Why we need diversity in NZ media

Suckling raises plenty of interesting arguments about identity politics, some of which appear to challenge Smalley’s position. For example, he heralds the role played by US broadcaster Jon Stewart, who “proved to be one of the greatest straight allies we’ve ever had. He argued for LGBT causes better than most of us ever could”. The point being, that a person’s ability to empathise with minorities is more important than being a minority. Nonetheless, he agrees with Smalley’s call for more diversity (although it’s not clear that anyone actually disagrees with Smalley’s call). But he calls for diversity to go beyond what Smalley demands: “New Zealand can do better than switching out straight white men with straight white women”.

It’s important that women are fronting broadcast programmes, according to Deborah Russell who dismisses those who point to women being powerful behind the scenes of radio and television: “when you have white men as the front person for so many shows, it helps to create a mindset about who is worthy of presenting the news, who is entitled to comment on it, whose opinions matter, who are the serious people that we ought to listen to and trust” – see: A couple of points about Rachel Smalley and diversity in prime time news. See also her earlier blog post, Talking about male privilege

Blogger Martyn Bradbury has come out in Smalley’s defence, saying that respect for John Campbell should not “blind us to the validity of Rachel’s point, that we desperately lack a diverse media”, and he explains why he has made the Daily Blog “the most diverse blog in NZ” – see: Why Rachel Smalley is right

Criticising Smalley

The most stinging critiques of Smalley’s argument come from women associated with John Campbell’s employment, with Radio New Zealand’s Carol Hirschfeld labelling the column “muddled” and “self-promoting”, and former Campbell Live producer Pip Keane accusing Smalley of “sour grapes” – see Katie Kenny’s Carol Hirschfeld says Rachel Smalley’s column about John Campbell is ‘muddled’

One of the strongest challenges to Smalley’s identity politics argument comes today in Chris Trotter’s blog post, Of Messengers And Messages: Reflections on Rachel Smalley’s Controversial Column. He suggests that it’s ideology and politics rather than gender or ethnicity that is a bigger issue in terms of bias and representation in the mainstream media: “Smalley’s argument would have been a great deal stronger if she had couched it in terms of ideological, rather than gender, diversity. The problem with prime-time radio in New Zealand is not a preponderance of male voices, but of right-wing voices. It is, surely, the messages which are carried on the nation’s airwaves that matter most – not the gender of the broadcasters who carry them?”

Blogger Steven Cowan argues that the media’s diversity problem is one of class and economics rather identity: “A capitalist media structure means that working class views remain unheard. While Hosking, Henry, Gower and co speak for the powerful, who in the corporate media is speaking for the voiceless? No one. Smalley is either unconcerned or unaware of the obvious class bias of the corporate media” – see: Smalley thinking

A nuanced and thoughtful critique of Smalley’s position comes from the Executive Producer of TV3’s The Nation, Tim Watkin, who provides something of an insider’s perspective on broadcasting and gender – see: On Smalley: a bit of back & forth. He challenges some of the “rather clumsy stereotypes” about gender and journalism that he says Smalley makes. 

While agreeing with Smalley’s point about the overall gender imbalance at the top of broadcasting, Watkin argues that her focus on Campbell was a mistake. But he also goes further to defend the place of the “white men” at the top, and questions whether there really are any talented women broadcasters ready to take their place: “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”.

Debates about “privilege” regarding gender, ethnicity and otherwise will continue in other spheres as well. Recent articles of importance in this regard are Bernard Orsman’s Auckland’s Super City club: Who’s running our city? White men from wealthy suburbs and Hayden Donnell’s White Men in Charge: It’s Not Just Auckland Council

The phrase “check your privilege” has become fairly established and gets used against pakeha, males, straights and other dominant groups in the debate. This is reflected upon by Verity Johnson in her column, ‘Check your privilege’ sounds smug, but it’s just a call for thoughtfulness

Identity politics is likely to continue to become more and more central to New Zealand politics and debate. But as this episode shows, it’s both an illuminating and very fraught way of looking at the world and issues of power. 

Finally, for the epitome of white male privilege in the newsroom, check out the new satirical media sensation on YouTube: White Man Behind A Desk, which is also on Facebook: White Man Behind A Desk. For an explanation of it all, see Jess McAllen’s Robie Nicol: The Kiwi John Oliver

Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.