In 2009, when the first tentative steps were being taken in the Teina Pora appeal, I was a relative media virgin. My investigative career had taught me to be wary of news media and journalists. I’d been told they were scoundrels who’d stop at nothing to trick a headline out of the naive and witless, and there is every chance I was both of those things.
Six years later, following the quashing of Teina’s convictions for rape and murder, I hold quite a different view, not only of the journalists we dealt with, but of the role investigative journalism plays, and ought to play, in a healthy democracy.
An investigator deals in facts and evidence. No matter the audience or medium, you look for the truth. It is difficult, meticulous, repetitive and sometimes thankless work, and it is definitely not lucrative. But that doesn’t mean it’s without value. On the contrary, the real value of investigative work is rarely captured in an invoice, balance sheet or even ratings.
By 2011, Jonathan Krebs and I had gathered enough new evidence in Teina Pora’s case to be confident we could mount a robust appeal on his behalf, but we were started hitting state-imposed road blocks. We were also uncovering uncomfortable facts, that were undoubtedly in the public interest but not necessarily helpful in advancing Teina’s rather narrow criminal appeal.
We tentatively engaged with a small number of journalists who had enough knowledge about the case to demonstrate they weren’t looking for a one hit headline. They wanted the whole story. We were fortunate that three of those journalists were Paula Penfold, Phil Taylor and Eugene Bingham.
In the following years, all three presented the facts of Teina’s case to the New Zealand public, in a way that it desperately needed to be. Teina, a poor brown kid from South Auckland, a convicted rapist and murderer, a gang associate with a criminal history, was not an immediately sympathetic character. Teina’s story would have been a tough sell to editors – but those journalists backed themselves and backed the facts.
It is hard to overstate the vital role their investigative journalism played in advancing Teina’s case. Witnesses came forward and spoke to the appeal team and to police as a result of their work and new evidence emerged and was developed by both sides of the appeal.
Just as importantly, for Teina and our team, there were less tangible products of their reporting. After stories went to print or air, we’d receive emails of support, including from police officers, encouraging us to keep going. We could feel the momentum building as the public began to understand what had happened to Teina, and to Susan Burdett.
When I heard that Mediaworks CEO Mark Weldon was looking to cancel 3D for 2016, I felt angry, then sad, then angry and sad.
I was angry because it was another slap in the face from an organisation that I believe has a responsibility to provide New Zealanders with serious journalism. Sad, because I know how hard those who make 3D work (if Paula, Eugene and Toby Longbottom are anything to go by), and how much they care about their work and the people whose stories they tell.
And both angry and sad because Mr Weldon and his senior management team are treating the New Zealand public like fools. He thinks he can dispense with Campbell Live and 3D and reduce TV3 to a light entertainment channel – and we’ll keep watching. I won’t keep watching TV3, or Radio Live, or any other Mediaworks brand, until I am convinced that serious journalism has a place at TV3.
Aside from the asinine PR game Mr Weldon and his team attempted to play in announcing the “review” in the midst of the World Cup euphoria, it is apparent that Mediaworks has become the type of company where the balance sheets are everything. Ironically, their axeing of Campbell Live for commercial reasons looks to be as disastrous for them commercially as it is for their reputation as a credible media outlet.
I believe that as a large broadcaster, TV3 has a corporate social responsibility to deliver us quality journalism. Without 3D and its predecessor Third Degree, Teina Pora would not be where he is today, and so I watch with desperation as the Mediaworks team proposes cancelling their last investigative journalism program.
Over four years those programmes posed important questions about the Malcolm Rewa serial rape investigation, about the police treatment of some of Rewa’s rape victims, the apparent disappearance of important documents from police files, and many more important questions that were never going to be part of Teina’s appeal to the Privy Council but needed to be asked. There are still more questions to be asked, but it seems 3D will not be around to ask them.
I suspect Mr Weldon will tell us, if he has the courage to front, that the media landscape is changing, 3D was expensive, out of date, not snackable, ratings were low (not surprisingly given the constant shifting of its timeslot), and that the program did not provide the value Mediawork’s owners require. That’s all bullshit. The value of 3D, of any investigative journalism, can’t be measured by ratings. In Teina’s case, those journalists were the critical difference between New Zealanders understanding justice and injustice.
My work with Paula, Phil and Eugene taught me that when you do investigative work it doesn’t matter who your audience is – criminal courts, tribunals, or the wider public. The real balance sheet measures evidence, facts and ultimately the truth.
Tim McKinnel is a director of the private investigation company Zavest and was previously a detective in the New Zealand Police.