The man behind RNZ's Mediawatch - Colin Peacock
Opinion - Journalists avoid his calls, editors loathe it when he highlights mistakes. But he reckons he's not scary at all. The Spinoff's Chris Schulz meets RNZ's Mr Mediawatch, Colin Peacock.
Over his summer holidays, Colin Peacock tried to switch off. For much of the previous 12 months, the 52-year-old host of Radio New Zealand's long-running Mediawatch show had seen his favourite industry - the media - decimated, and it had taken its toll.
The worldwide pandemic caused by Covid-19 wreaked havoc. Bauer Media closed its doors, with 237 jobs lost and major magazine mastheads like Woman's Day, The Listener and Metro culled overnight. At the country's biggest news organisations, Stuff, NZME and Newshub, staff were laid off, and those that remained were asked to take pay cuts.
Those bleak times were covered in-depth over multiple weekly Mediawatch instalments by Peacock, recorded in isolation from his laptop at his Wellington home. "It was terrible," he says. "There was a time where every day was another story about job cuts."
Someone joked to Peacock that future Mediawatch shows would just feature himself and regular contributor Hayden Donnell talking to each other because there'd be no industry news left to cover. He didn't find it funny.
Peacock, who has hosted Mediawatch from the government-funded security of Radio NZ since 2007, has seen the industry go through tough times before, but nothing like the wrecking ball that was Covid-19. Putting those episodes together was rough. "That was awful," he says. "It felt like it wasn't going to stop."
So Peacock took full advantage of his five-week holiday over Christmas, switching off from the media completely by holidaying in remote locations and going mountain biking with his daughter. "I was out of town," he admits. "I slacked off."
But, near the end of January, Peacock couldn't help himself. In a car borrowed from his dad, he turned on Magic Talk, Mediaworks' controversial talkback radio station, to see what was happening in the world. He was surprised to hear John Banks on air as a fill-in holiday host.
Almost immediately, things got strange. "He was talking about elections in Uganda and laughing at the names of the candidates. They were amusing him so much. I thought, 'This is really weird,'" says Peacock. "That's just really unusual radio."
So Peacock stopped the car, pulled out his phone, and started recording Banks' comments. "I already had a sense some odd stuff was going down," he says. "I thought it was quite off the deep end."
We know what happened next. When a caller phoned in to suggest Māori were a "stone age people with a stone age culture", Banks appeared to agree, commenting, "If their stone-age culture doesn't change, these people will come through your bathroom window".
A listener's shocked reaction, posted to TikTok, then Twitter, went viral, and the fallout was swift. Major advertisers pulled the plug. NZ Cricket threatened to axe a recently inked contract for the station to cover test matches. MediaWorks' chief executive Cam Wallace called the incident "totally unacceptable" and yanked Banks off air.
Two weeks later, another controversial Magic Talk host, Sean Plunket, departed the network.
Peacock covered it all intensively through the first three Mediawatch instalments of 2021. In his apology, Banks claimed he wasn't racist. For anyone listening to the slow, methodical case built by Mediawatch - including clips from other incidents sparked by Banks across the previous decade, as well as the audio Peacock recorded in his dad's car - you'd be inclined to conclude the opposite.
Ask him how long it took to cut that 11-minute segment together and Peacock says he has no idea. "It was a long time. I couldn't even guess," he says, admitting even he was surprised by how big the issue became. "I wasn't too surprised that something newsworthy came out of it [but] I didn't expect it to be that hard out."
That dedication shows Peacock is always watching, always listening, always looking for content that could be turned into a Mediawatch segment. He reads all major newspapers, checks daily news sites, listens to hours of talkback, and finds time to watch both 6pm news shows, as well as Seven Sharp and The Project, religiously. Donnell says Peacock saves so many audio files the system he uses at Radio NZ to edit his stories takes 10 minutes to boot up.
He knows it's an unhealthy addiction, but he can't stop himself. "I find it endlessly interesting to absorb a lot of news media everyday," Peacock says. "Even if I wasn't doing this programme I'd still be as engaged with the news as I would be otherwise.
"I know it sounds like a sickness - but I think I'd be doing it anyway."
A long memory for media spats
Within the first few minutes of our 70-minute interview, Colin Peacock sends a shiver down my spine. "Did you once write a story…?" he asks, going on to detail a minor media spat I caused at Stuff around 2008, early in my digital news career.
I'd not thought about it for more than a decade, believing the incident to be dead and buried. But, even though he didn't cover the incident on Mediawatch, Peacock remembered. He'd received a call from a prominent politician about it at the time, and could recall intricate details.
"It's so long ago that you must have been really new to it," he says, trying to calm my frazzled nerves.
That shiver is a sign of the power Peacock wields over local news journalists. While he often highlights exemplary work, like Matt Nippert's exclusive interview with jailed businessman Eric Watson, journalists aren't usually thrilled to hear Peacock's voice on the other end of the phone, because it probably means they've screwed something up. If Mediawatch covers their mistakes, it's likely their bosses will want to chat on Monday morning.
It's been that way for 20 years. Mediawatch was launched in 2001 by producer Tom Frewen and host Russell Brown, who'd left bFM's Hard News slot to host the show. They'd aimed to cover the evolution of journalism in New Zealand, and early episodes were chock-full of interviews. The show aired at 9am and 10pm every Sunday on RNZ, and still does, along with a smaller midweek instalment on Wednesday nights.
After completing his postgraduate diploma in journalism at Canterbury University, Peacock moved to London and shifted around multiple BBC newsrooms, including a stint at 24-hour news network 5 Live where his first night shift coincided with Princess Diana's fatal car crash. He returned to New Zealand in 2002, and began contributing to Mediawatch a few years later after becoming fascinated with government-funded broadcasting and the TVNZ charter. He took over hosting duties in 2007 when Brown left because his media column in The Listener was clashing with his role at Radio NZ. Peacock's been there, exerting his influence, ever since.
Hayden Donnell, who has worked in NZ Herald and Radio NZ newsrooms, agrees his boss doesn't understand his power.
"I absolutely know that everyone listens, fears and loathes [appearing on] Mediawatch," he says. "He's ignorant to the regard he's held by other people because it doesn't match his self-perception, or his character, or the interactions he has with other journalists, which are genuinely quite friendly. He sees himself as an un-intimidating guy."
Peacock plays down his influence. He doesn't believe he has as much power as everyone says he does, and is startled when I mention the times I've heard stressed editors yell things like, "Get that fixed before Mediawatch sees it!" during seven-year stints at both Stuff and NZ Herald.
"From time to time people tell you things like that but I would imagine most newsrooms would carry on doing what they're doing and we wouldn't seem too relevant to them," he says. "When you pull apart the scripts, it's not really criticising people. I'm not passing judgement. Hopefully journalists don't feel like they're being judged… I hope that myself, the way I do it, and the programme itself, doesn't cause people too much stress, and the stories and selections share it around a bit."
Mediawatch critics say it's easy to throw stones at corporate news organisations that rely on advertising income from the relative safety of RNZ. Peacock points out Mediawatch regularly covers negative issues at the state-funded broadcaster. "We've put the chief executive on the spot. We did the Carol Hirschfeld-Clare Curran thing. We do all those and no one's ever messed with us or told us not to." He's even walked down the two flights of stairs to the desk of RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson and told him: "I think we need to interview you now."
They also suggest Peacock spends too much time covering easy targets, like the big-name flip-flop hosts of Newstalk ZB, who frequently switch their opinions to orchestrate listener reaction. "There is perhaps too much emphasis on the weekly crimes of talk radio," says Russell Brown. "But there's nowhere outside social media where that can be regularly addressed, so perhaps it's inevitable."
Peacock agrees Newstalk ZB is a regular target, but believes it's in context. "It might seem like we're picking on them but there'll be a whole range of media outlets [featured] in our report. They do a lot of content that's designed to get a reaction, [then] they amplify it on their partner platform, the NZ Herald. I don't think they can be too surprised that a programme that looks at topical stuff in the media will be featuring them fairly frequently."
He's never had a Broadcasting Standards Authority complaint laid against him, and he's proud of that. Peacock says he has been yelled at - but only twice. "I can only think of a couple of occasions and a couple of individuals who've got in touch being very angry," he says. "My impression is that people are okay with the programme and feel like they've been dealt with fairly by it and by me, and I hope so because if they don't then it really doesn't work."
That may be the case, but when The Spinoff approached other editors and reporters to comment on Mediawatch for this story, they politely declined, perhaps in fear they might become a target of a future Mediawatch episode.
Peacock's clearly wary about media retribution himself. After detailing that incident I was involved in at Stuff early in our interview, Peacock realised the power balance between us had shifted.
"It's a very bad idea for me to talk to you now," he told me, thinking out loud. "I just realised the irony."
Perhaps Peacock's been able to poke holes and point fingers at an industry that hates people poking holes and pointing fingers at it for so long because of one clear indisputable news fact: he really is a down-to-earth, decent, likeable guy.
"I'm a fan," says Brown, who remains a committed listener to the show he started all those years ago. He praises the injection of new energy from Donnell, and says: "Colin's done an amazing job of turning Mediawatch into an institution."
Donnell, who was formerly on staff at The Spinoff, wants to ensure I note in this piece that Peacock is the best boss he's ever had. "He's never made me feel bad about anything I've turned in," he says.
During our interview, Peacock moved to an empty office room to make sure he wasn't interrupted, closed the door and checked that my .mp3 recorder was capturing his voice properly. After answering an hour of questions, he made sure I had everything I needed from him, and even checked off points from earlier in the interview to give me different options for quotes.
In other words, he's a dream interview subject.
Even those who've suffered the heat of Peacock's wrath won't say a bad word about him.
When Hal Crawford moved to New Zealand from Australia in 2016 to become Newshub's chief news officer, he cued up Mediawatch's back catalogue to learn about the industry he was about to play a key role in.
It didn't take long until he was featured on the show, enduring a robust interview in which Peacock highlighted Crawford's tabloid past at Nine MSN.
That segment included Peacock reading Crawford a list of headlines from stories he was involved in, including a Nine MSN homepage headline about "monkey wars", and a 2012 opinion piece he'd written titled: "Quality journalism should be left to die."
It made Crawford sweat at the time, but he has no beef about it. He says the Australian version of Peacock's show, ABC's Media Watch, is far more hard-hitting and salacious. Peacock could have gone for the jugular, he says, but he chose not to.
"There are any number of points where the interview could have gone bad," he says. "He listened to my argument. I think I got a really fair hearing… he didn't take me to the cleaners. He's a reasonable guy."
Then Crawford says something most local journalists - including me - are extremely grateful for. "You know what would be terrifying? If Colin was truly a mean dude. That would chill the bones."
This article was published in The Spinoff.