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August 13, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Behind the News: Sean Plunket

Sean Plunket doesn’t think he’s much of a morning person – despite his working day beginning at 5am. But, having been the co-presenter of Radio New Zealand’s highly regarded breakfast programme Morning Report for nearly eleven years, he says he’s almost got used to the early starts…

Politics and news junkies all over New Zealand have been waking up to Morning Report for more than 30 years. Widely touted as a key programme that sets the news agenda for the day, on a good news day the studio phone will be ringing with politicians and newsmakers wanting some airtime. On the day I visited the studio, however, Plunket complains that he’s bored – despite having interviews with both National Party leader John Key and Australian Foreign Affairs minister Alexander Downer.

The Radio New Zealand building on The Terrace is an 11-storey hive of activity, packed with busy newsrooms and studios. Having been given the opportunity to witness Morning Report behind the scenes, I arrive just before eight on a Monday morning to discover the reception is closed. Waiting awkwardly in an empty corridor, I’m eventually welcomed by the receptionist who calls upstairs on my behalf. Minutes later I’m met by a confused producer – my name isn’t on the list for today, am I sure it’s Morning Report I’m being interviewed for? Not quite, I correct him, today I’m doing the interviewing.

The prospect of interviewing such a seasoned interviewer is daunting. Plunket has what could be called a take-no-prisoners style of tackling politicians, public servants, or anybody else with something to hide, that at its best brings interviewees quivering to their knees and at worst ends in a shouting match. Plunket has been described by detractors as “combative” and “aggressive”. Personally, he prefers the term “assertive”.

“The people being interviewed might not like me being assertive, but I call it assertive not aggressive, and I think there’s a difference. It simply is that I have to ask the question, sometimes several times to get an answer or to get an admission that the person doesn’t want to answer the question – and there’s normally a reason for that.”

In contrast, co-presenter Geoff Robinson’s style is more gentle but equally as probing, playing the perfect foil for Plunket’s bull-dog tendencies. They’ve got the good cop/bad cop routine down to a fine art, but Plunket says it’s not a deliberate strategy. “It’s never been anything that any producer or anyone at Radio New Zealand has ever told us to develop. Geoff has a different way of getting to the same point, and that’s just a style issue.” The two presenters decide between themselves who interviews whom and come up with the questions on the spot, having been provided with background information by producers and the Morning Report team.

In person he is just as assertive he is over the airwaves: tall and confident, he has an imposing and almost intimidating presence – although the image is shattered somewhat when he admits that having the microphone turned on him makes him nervous. But he answers questions in the same manner with which he handles making a mistake on air, unfazed and ready to tackle anything that comes at him. That morning he accidentally referred to Trade and Defence minister Phil Goff as the Foreign Affairs minister – a role now filled by Winston Peters. But he duly apologises and waves it off. “I’m sure Phil won’t take offence, I’m sure Peters might.”

Plunket’s 20 plus year career in journalism has flitted from one medium to another and back again. He graduated from what is now the Massey University diploma of journalism in the early 1980s, but ended up working sandwich-boarding for a pharmacy. He got his first reporting job when he threw down his sandwich board and ran in to Radio Windy demanding employment. “I ran into a friend who was just leaving Radio Windy who I’d done my course with, and I dumped my sandwich board and I ran up to the newsroom and said “give us a job”. And that’s how I got my big break in journalism.”

From there it was to the Parliamentary press gallery with a private radio company, then to a newspaper, back to the gallery – this time being one of the first TV 3 gallery journalists – on to current affairs show 20/20, consumer affairs programme Fair Go and a stint on the Holmes Show. In 1997 he unceremoniously bowed out from the television industry – but not before being hauled in front of the employment court by TV3 for leaving a year out from the expiration of his contract – and began as co-presenter for Morning Report. And neither has life at Radio New Zealand been lacking conflict.

“I’ve only ever been sued by an employer twice,” he says when accused of being a difficult man to be the boss of. “Both times it was employers who didn’t want me to leave. But I’d say that the issues I’ve had with Radio NZ have been where I have felt – rightly or wrongly – that the ethic of what I have done has been called into question.”

Most recently, he was suspended from working for two days in 2005 – allegedly for swearing at a producer following an interview with Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons over the Exclusive Brethren pamphlet campaign. “To my mind it was an editorial issue, and I think we also had some communication issues about that,” he says.

“To be honest, I think you have to take the idea of impartiality and lack of self interest to the point where you say I would be prepared to walk from this job rather than broadcast or be involved in a process or a story that I felt was misleading or didn’t pass the test of my ethics. Otherwise, my belief is that you compromise everything you do.”

While journalists often rate below politicians and, quite possibly, used car salesmen in terms of public trust, Plunket is a journalist with a strong moral compass that lies beneath his work.

“Without concern for whether or not the person you’re talking to likes you, our job is to simply ask the questions. Even if they’re embarrassing or annoying or might seem self-evident. Because they have to be asked.”

“I guess that’s the ethic,” he continues passionately, “to be the niggly kid at the back of the classroom with his hand up who says ‘hey, what about….’ Whether or not people appreciate that or agree with what the question is, the job of the Fourth Estate is to ask the questions and seek accountability.”

It very much a “us” versus “them” perspective. On one side are the politicians and civil servants, and on the other are the rest of us – with journalists asking questions on our behalf. Plunket’s philosophy explains his assertive attitude and interview style, especially towards those in positions of power and influence. “Politicians are publicly elected officials and the role of the news media is absolutely to question and critique those who influence our lives, those who have control over our lives. Particularly in terms of elected politicians, I think their accountability has to be greater.”

“There are other instances where people will come along who have information to impart and it’s not a confrontation, it’s not an interrogation. Sometimes you need to assist people who have a good or an interesting story to tell. It is a completely different approach. I don’t sort of sit there and go ‘he gets a nasty interview, he gets a nice interview’, but it’s self evident from the person we’re talking to.”

Plunket pauses for a moment when asked if the New Zealand media is living up to its ethical obligations. For him, he says slowly, one of the major issues facing New Zealand journalism is the siege of spin. Having started out in journalism in the 1980s, he says there’s been a massive change in the numbers of professional public relations experts hired by the Government and Government departments. “I was in Parliament during the Roger Douglas years, and I think that’s the first time we saw government in a very sophisticated way take hold of a whole nation and manufacture a consensus for change. Which, in retrospect, maybe went further and faster than it should have. Certainly, I look back now and at times shudder at my naivety at not asking better questions.”

“If you look overall, there is a huge economic imbalance in the resources available to the media to battle not only government spin, but also corporate spin. Corporate spin doctors and public relations experts are unfortunately generally paid far better than working journalists, and many of the best working journalists become public relations practitioners.” At 42, Plunket describes himself as an old man in what has increasingly become a young person’s game.

“It is a constant battle to maintain any sort of parity under those circumstances – and that doesn’t mean that journalists are doing any worse, it just means there’s a huge tide of noise and static surrounding their search for the answers to those important questions.”

But, it’s a battle that’s become increasingly difficult, despite the rise of the Internet and the so-called “new media”. “I still believe that for journalism to be effective it has to have a broad audience. You can have revolutionaries or nay-sayers at the fringes who push the boat out, but unless you communicate ideas or answer questions in a mainstream media environment it doesn’t have any resonance.”

Instead of simply bemoaning the changes in New Zealand journalism, Plunket has an innovative suggestion for how to improve conditions for journalists and reduce the tide of noise. “One of my biggest bug bears in terms of public service broadcasting, is that I think Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand should be merged.”

Despite being headquartered in different cities and having very different approaches to home-grown content, Plunket says that below the management level there is a similar ethic. What makes his argument more convincing, he adds, is that in having separate publicly funded radio and television New Zealand is an outlier in an international context.

“You look everywhere around the world – the ABC, the BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Service, Radio and Television Ireland, every comparable country has decided that if they’re going to have a public service broadcasting infrastructure that is committed to an independent news service, they amalgamate.”

Amalgamation could also go a long way to fighting back against the tide of spin, and the loss of experienced journalists to the dark-side of PR. New Zealand, says Plunket, needs to have an organisation big enough “to create much better careers for people which actually allows them to resist the pull off PR or to become government spin doctors for much longer. Also, it gives that organisation the ability to stand up to political pressures.”

“I’ve been subject to political pressure in my time at Radio New Zealand,” he says. Most recently when Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey complained to management over what he claimed was being accused of racism on air. But Plunket is pleased with the way it was dealt with. “I think we dealt with that in an entirely appropriate way, and I have to say I wouldn’t always have been in the past as confident that we would have dealt with it as well as we did.”

“There is no doubt that RNZ is by and large a far more socially aware organisation, it runs a far higher proportion of government news and therefore it can be criticised as being left-wing. Once again, I come back to I do what I do and the rules that I impose on myself. But I’d also say, it is an organisation that takes the delineation between an impartial news service and other parts of the organisation which are charged with reflecting the government of the day’s desire for social change very seriously.”

Back in the studio, Robinson and Plunket are reading out listeners e-mail responses to stories on the programme. One disgruntled listener – “Gary” – writes in to voice his objections to the presenters starting the morning with a Maori greeting. Gary extorts them to stand up, say they are not Maori and speak English. Totally unscripted and in perfect unison the two chant: “I am not Maori and I’m speaking English”. The control room bursts into giggles as Plunket quips “although, I wasn’t standing up when I just said that”.

Aside from issues with Plunket’s microphone button – while the 8.30am news bulletin is read out it gets suck in the “on” position – Morning Report is a well-oiled machine. Producers and journalists work the previous afternoon and throughout the night to stay up to date with developments that occur between shows, and each show is followed by a team meeting to discuss angles and follow-ups for the next day.

To the casual observer, is does seem to be a well-oiled machine. And in contrast with the description of former Nine to Noon presenter Linda Clark in early 2006, neither does it seem to be a sad place to work. Indeed, Plunket says that the so-called “malaise” that enveloped the national broadcaster in past years seems to have dissipated.

“It feels like we’re at the end of whatever storm there was. People are more focussed back on doing what they do, rather than any other issue surrounding the organisation.”

Despite being one of the most highly paid Radio New Zealand broadcasters – he’s rumoured to be earning around $150,000 annually – it’s a small salary compared to what he could be earning in private radio. But for Plunket, money comes second to philosophy. “I’ve talked with commercial radio stations before, but you pay a price for earning that money. That is that you lose the ability to operate in an ethical environment that I think Radio New Zealand, most of the time, represents. I don’t lose a lot of sleep at night over what I’ve done at Morning Report. It’s not all about money to be honest. That’s just not my motivator.”

“In the context of New Zealand I’m not poorly paid,” he adds.

It’s almost 10am, and Plunket sounds surprised when I suggest we wind up the half hour interview. “Is that all?” he says with a laugh. For many people the day has hardly begun, but Plunket’s heading home to do the housework and walk the dog.

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About the Author ()

Nicola Kean: feature writer, philanthropist, womanly woman. Nicola is the smallest member of the Salient team, but eats really large pieces of lasagne. Favourites include 80s music, the scent of fresh pine needles and long walks on the beach.

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