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Rural Week NZ

It's Complicated: Is NZ Media's Relationship with Kiwi Farmers Busted?

I'm a farm kid, and a journalist, and right now that's an awkward position to be in.

by Ben Stanley
01 June 2017, 3:52am

There's a name you don't say out loud in rural New Zealand right now unless you want to draw scorn and outright disgust.

It's the name of one of my childhood heroes.

For the majority of the 1990s, Cameron Bennett was New Zealand's foreign correspondent; our eye on international conflict and disaster. He'd travel to Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan and the West Bank and report back home with his gritty, but revealing, insights on war and why people make it.

As a young kid growing up on a relatively isolated farm on the high hill country along the Napier-Taupo Road, Bennett's dispatches for Sixty Minutes and TVNZ thrilled me—and planted the seeds of curiosity for the world outside New Zealand.

I'm a journalist now, myself. That's not solely because of Bennett, but his role in it is in the mix there somewhere.

Yet the people I grew up around, back on the farm, and the wider Kiwi rural community can't stand him at present.

In early April, Bennett, who has been back home from the front for a few years now, did a feature piece for TVNZ's Sunday programme titled "The Price of Milk" on the dairy industry, and various practices within it.

From war zones to the farm, Cameron Bennett reporting for 'Sunday'. Image TVNZ.

In an interview with Stuff before it aired, Bennett described it as "looking from the inside of the farming industry as to why farmers have become under siege from the rest of the country as far as dirty farming and animal care practices go".

What screened, on April 9, was a stitch-up of remarkable proportions.

Bennett visited a "regular" dairy farm and a smaller organic operation, both located in the wider Hauraki region. The regular farm showed poorly fed cows and rusty machinery; a generally run down operation with mud everywhere, filmed during in the cold of early spring.

The organic farm was a small-scale operation, filmed at the height of summer. The optics, of course, were completely different. It looked nice—and well run.

The comparison was unfairly framed. The first was not typical of the vast majority of dairy farms in NZ—and neither was the second; a tiny operation run by someone who had the farm as a secondary income anyway.

For urban dwellers, perhaps, the programme didn't register much. Maybe some thought 'typical bloody farmers,' flicked the TV off and thought little more about it. Maybe not.

Yet the rural community—particularly the dairy industry—is ticked off totally. Dairy NZ boss Dr Tim Mackle has since described Bennett as a "wily fox," while Northern Advocate columnist Simon Edwards slammed the reportage.

"Sunday has said it did not set out to put one farming style against another," he wrote. "But that's exactly what the programme ended up doing."

Brad Markham, a farming columnist for the Taranaki Daily News, described Bennett's reporting as "gutter journalism" and a "hatchet job" into dairying.

Markham's perspective carries more weight than most. A former ABC News political reporter who became a dairy farmer two years ago, he is used to negotiating his way through tricky Aussie federal political issues.

In short, Markham, who is an ex-Radio New Zealand journalist too, knows both sides of the divide. Too few members of Kiwi newsrooms have ever had experience in both worlds.

"Sadly, the furore triggered by the episode does nothing to improve the public's poor perception of TV journalists, who're often at level pegging with used car salesmen and politicians," Markham wrote.

"Sunday's credibility has plunged to new lows."

There is yawning divide between reality and perception in Kiwi media when it comes to reporting on rural issues.

What Bennett's reportage, and its reception, shows is yawning divide between reality and perception in Kiwi media when it comes to reporting on rural issues.

Though I grew up on the farm, farming was not for me. Journalism was a job that resonated and I love it. But my heart still lies on a farm in the Kaimanawa foothills, and always will.

So when my parents rang me up to talk about the Sunday stitch-up, it both disappointed and embarrassed me. My industry has let down theirs.

Though they'd prefer more good stories than bad, farmers don't have their blinkers on. Bad shit will, and does, happen in the primary sector—and should certainly be called out when it does.

The coverage of the Crafar Farms saga over the last decade—which focused on dirty dairying and financial irregularities—suited the stain it cast on the rural industry.

Yet exception to the rules should never be reported breathlessly, like Bennett did on Sunday. In journalism, Context is King. Yet when it isn't provided, the reporter is letting the viewer or reader down poorly.

In the making of "The Price of Milk", Dairy NZ reached out to Sunday and worked with them to connect Bennett up with a number of innovative, progressive Kiwi dairy farmers. Some of these farms were filmed on, but none of that footage was used.

The Sunday debacle had its precursor in late November 2015, when animal welfare group SAFE went public with footage of ill treatment of bobby calves in New Zealand.

SAFE even took out big-money ads in major UK newspapers, depicting New Zealand animal welfare standards was widely substandard.

The resulting reportage of it all was breathless, leaving Kiwi readers and viewers thinking that the poor treatment was rife throughout New Zealand.

I remember one of my old friends making the grandiose statement on Facebook that, due to the coverage, she'd never eat her "beloved" New Zealand cheese again. I can almost bet she has since, but the post still got dozens and dozens of "likes" anyway.

The reality was SAFE's claims of industry-wide malpractice simply weren't true. Yep, there are cowboys, but very few. A Primary Industries report released in February shows that the calf mortality rate, between farm and processing, was 0.25 percent—or one in every 400 calves—in 2015. That halved to 0.12—one in every 800—in 2016.

That's a big improvement on the 0.68 percent mortality rate in 2008.

In 2015, New Zealand was ranked first equal, out of 50 countries, for animal welfare regulations by the global charity World Animal Protection. That same year, New Zealand passed a new Animal Welfare Amendment Bill to the original to improve compliance and enforcement of codes, and pumped about $10 million into it.

Ministry of Primary Industry vets oversee it all, and further fine-tuning was made in the six months after the SAFE bomb.

"Government regulation carries more weight than the disappointing actions of a few cowboys," Nathan Guy, New Zealand's Minister for Primary Industries, said at the time.

Groups like SAFE will always have an agenda, and sometimes it is justified. But the role of the reporter has always been to sort the hyperbole from the pitch; the fact from the fiction. At the end of 2015, it wasn't.

Mazda, one of Sunday's chief sponsors, was forced into some quick PR work, after farmers called for a boycott of their products and removal from Fonterra Farm Source Rewards scheme.

Farmers will be gun-shy to talk to reporters in the future.

Angry at the lack of perspective and context Bennett presented, farmers will be gun-shy to talk to reporters in the future. That's an issue, especially in an election year.

Effluent runoff into waterways and rivers from farms will be a big talking point heading into September, and the Greens will be going hard on it. Yet both the Greens and those who report what their prospective MPs campaign need to include farmers in the conversation—and do the homework about what is really happening.

A Dairy NZ report in May showed the strides the dairy sector had taken on the issue, with 97.2 per cent of waterways now protected from cattle and increases in farm nutrient management plans. While they found 5.2 per cent of the 10,000 farms visited weren't doing their job fully yet, the industry says it's being proactive.

"We're definitely part of the problem and we're trying to lead the way with solutions," Mackle told Newshub.

If the work being done within the industry to improve runoff issues is ignored or misreported, farmers will continue to feel the media is making them out to be the villains in the New Zealand experience.

"Anyone else sick of the anti-farming sentiment rife in the media of late?" Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis asked in a Stuff column.

"I used to be proud of saying I'm a dairy farmer, but it's got to the point where I find it less troublesome to just describe myself as a farmer or don't mention to people what I do."

I'll always be proud of calling myself a journalist, but recognise that these days, in some rural company, more eyebrows rise when I do. That's a role journalists are used to being assigned, but getting overall context right is too.

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