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Salient. Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 7. Tuesday, June 18, 1963

Weak Journalism at Harriman Conference

page 8

Weak Journalism at Harriman Conference

The American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Mr. W. Averell Harriman, gave a press conference in Wellington recently. Salient was fortunate enough to get an invitation and jumped at the opportunity to have a look at what big time journalism is really like.

The result was not comforting—New Zealand journalists cannot handle big time journalism.

What was said at the conference is stale news now, so I will endeavour to give you my subjective impressions. I will give you my comments, not on the news, but the news conference.

At the door of the spacious ambassadorial mansion the ambassador's wife greets me. I am the second to arrive and feel it is rather by accident than design that I meet her. She hurries on before the rest of the press corps arrive leaving them at the mercy of the press secretary (a New Zealanden.

I am shown into a room and introduced to the Australian Broadcasting Commission representative. Helping himself to one of the Embassy's cigarettes. ABC confides to me that they reckon ANZUS is fairly important over the other side of the Tasman so they flew him over to cover it. ABC says he has been to every press conference Harriman has given in Australia and New Zealand. He's a good talker and hard to pin down says ABC. But ABC has some stiff questions lined up because he needs a new lead for the Australian news bulletins.

ABC is busy talking about the time he went to New Guinea when Miss Thames Star is introduced. She relates the difficulties she had getting here, travelling all night through the floods. ABC pricks up his ears. Things are pretty quiet in Aussie right now and he could use a flood story. Pity he didn't bring some TV cameras.

When everyone has arrived, about 25 in all, we are ushered into a more palatial room and told to sit where we like. The NZBC all sit together, one gets the impression they are trying to surround the Press Association which is represented by one solitary figure.

An embassy official introduces Mr. Harriman. He is a tall dignified figure—but you have done your homework you know he was born in 1891 and is therefore much older than he looks. Mr. Harriman sits down.

The embassy official says the conference will begin with the photographers "making their pictures." While the cameras flash Harriman tells the photograpers how important they are.

When they have finished, the photographers go out—the official tells them they can. When you look to the door you see half a dozen burly characters in suits looking not the slightest bit interested in proceedings. These, you assume, are security men.

Harriman starts to talk. He is glad to be in New Zealand, he has heard of the fishing. There is no place in the world like it. He knew General Freyberg well during the war. The Ambassador is an old friend and he is glad to have the opportunity to come here for the ANZUS council meeting. ANZUS means a lot to the United States, he says. The treaty put into words the feeling of mutual interest and friendship which is in fact a reality, he says.

Harriman speaks slowly and deliberately. He never stumbles.

Now comes question time. The Dominion in its wisdom asks Harriman what his present job is. Harriman says he is Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, It takes him a bit longer than that to say it, but in substance that is what he says. The Dominion thanks him gravely.

ABC wants to know what the matters of deep mutual concern affecting ANZUS are. Harriman says the aggression of Communist China in South East Asia is one of the principal concerns.

Not to be outdone NZBC pipes up. It wants to know if there are links between defence and trade. Harriman says the United States has a million men abroad and this causes an unfavourable balance of payments. The United States would like to reduce this.

Now it is the NZBC announcer. God bless him. He tells Harriman that Harriman knows a lot about Laos (a fact which Harriman presumably knows and which he later says he knows). NZBC announcer then says the trouble in Laos is that "you have these warring factions." (Another point With which Harriman is likely to be familiar). NZBC announcer then wants to know why the United States supports one of these factions and why aren't they left to fight it out by themselves.

Of several inane questions asked at the conference this is probably the silliest. Anyone with a slight familiarity with United States foreign policy knows that the USA will support neutralists against communists. With a few embroideries, this is the answer Harriman gives NZBC.

The Corporation knows its own business best, but it can hardly expect to improve its news coverage if it admits announcers, untrained in knowing what makes news, to important press conferences with visiting statesmen.

However, if it made a bad blue the NZBC redeemed itself. In the privacy of the ambassadorial study R. J. Harrison of the Victoria University Political Science Department recorded an interview with Harriman which was used on the point of view programme.

Harrison asked in very skilful manner a series of questions, the answers to which revealed a good deal about American foreign policy. Harrison wasn't afraid to ask Harriman about racial strife in the United States, something the newsmen shied away from.

Back to the conference. Auckland Star was a young and earnest journalist, eager to get on. He asked about nuclear tests. Harriman pointed out that the United States was against them, and was negotiating for a ban!

NZPA wanted to know about the handing over of Dutch New Guinea to the Indonesians and the United States attitude to it. Harriman said there was nothing to indicate bad faith on the part of the Indonesians.

NZBC apparently could not understand that answer and asked a further question about Indonesian expansionalism.

Evening Post caught up with things at this stage and asked about nuclear tests again.

The Student Press then asked why the United States did not recognize Red China.

The Taranaki Daily News was interested in the Federation of Malaysia, it wondered If America was. It wasn't.

South Pacific News wanted to hear views on the differences between Moscow and Peking.

When the Embassy official said there would be no more questions Harriman concluded with a well constructed speech on the need for increased interest to combat Communist aggression in the Pacific.

We left the Conference feeling sorry for the New Zealand journalists. They had been outwitted. Harriman has no doubt been through a good many press conferences. The chances are' he never had a tamer one than this. He was never ruffled. One had the impression there was not even a question that made him think. He had covered all this ground before, something the journalists would have known if they followed United States foreign policy.

I was gratified when the The Dominon used the question The Student Press asked about Red China for its lead on the press conference story the next morning.

G. W. R. P.

Under-Secretary Averell Harriman.

Under-Secretary Averell Harriman.