Last week was a big one
for the media. Not only did New Zealand’s biggest newspaper launch a new
paywall, but Thursday was “World News Day”, and Friday was “World Media
Freedom Day”. All of this prompts the question, how well is New Zealand
society and democracy served by the media in 2019?
The World Press Freedom Index recently pronounced New Zealand as having
the seventh most free media in the world (up one from eighth) –
freedom threatened by business imperatives. The main point made by
Reporters Without Borders, who authored the report, is: “The press is
free in New Zealand but its independence and pluralism are often
undermined by the profit imperatives of media groups trying to cut
Commenting on the latest rankings, RNZ’s media commentator Colin Peacock
says “We're still in the top 10 for global press freedom but our media
need to be vigilant against incursions on their freedoms too” –
waters for media freedom.
Peacock discusses various challenges for the New Zealand media,
especially in terms of the post-Christchurch environment in which the
state appears to have more potential control over information. He points
out, for example, “The forthcoming Royal Commission is bound to uncover
things various agencies want to conceal or - at the least – ‘manage.’
Investigations by the media will overlap with the official ones and could
bring them into conflict with agencies citing national security needs as
a reason to withhold information.”
He also points to challenges in the law regarding whistleblowers in New
Zealand, who don’t have much protection if they inform the media of
“illegal, corrupt or unsafe” practices in their workplaces.
The big issue this year in media-democracy conversations has been the
survival of media outlets, in the context of the declining traditional
business model of newspapers and broadcasters. This has been hastened, of
course, with the rising influence of social media. This is dealt with
well in Bruce Cotterill’s column, We
need real journalists, not just social media.
Cotterill emphasises the importance of a healthy media for scrutinising
the powerful, but laments that the declining business model is [working]
against this. He concludes: “We aren't seeing enough depth or debate that
a community needs to become fully informed. Sadly, it seems society is
looking more and more at social media, despite its inaccuracies and
agendas. We need more bright people who want to be great journalists. We
need universities that are prepared to develop proper journalists. And we
need news organisations, with business models that work, that are
prepared to invest in those people and the stories that need to be told.
And we, the public, have to be prepared to pay it. Then and only then,
will we have the strong democracy and informed society that we all should
want to be a part of.”
In terms of the business landscape, it’s worth looking at the definitive
source of information about the changing patterns of business and what
the various commercial models mean for democracy – see Wayne Hope’s blog
post summarising AUT’s
annual NZ Media Ownership 2018.
According to the head of TVNZ, Kevin Kenrick, “the New Zealand media is
not sustainable in its current form”, and we can expect to see some major
changes of ownership in the near future – see Colin Peacock’s TVNZ
hints at bold digital moves.
One big and imminent change is the sale of Stuff, with increasing
speculation being that TVNZ could even buy it. The significance of this
is discussed by Peacock: “Absorbing the country's biggest publisher of
news and the country's most viewed news website would certainly give TVNZ
the digital heft TVNZ wants. And, when asked, Kevin Kenrick hasn't ruled
out making a bid for it. But that would radically reshape New Zealand
journalism. TVNZ would end up owning most of the country's newspapers and
employing more of the country's journalists than anyone else. It could
extend state ownership to a branch of the media that's always been out of
the government's reach.”
This is also discussed in detail in Tom Pullar-Strecker’s column, Minister
reassures media over ‘plurality’ in wake of hints TVNZ may want Stuff.
He says, “A takeover of Stuff's online news business by TVNZ could leave
NZ Herald publisher NZME and television channel three owner MediaWorks as
the only remaining major national private media businesses, while also
putting them in the position of competing for audiences against a
stronger state-owned competitor.”
Also in this article is a discussion with the Broadcasting Minister, Kris
Faafoi, about the potential creation of a new version of the old
collaborative New Zealand Press Association (NZPA), with financial help
from the state: “Faafoi said he was encouraged that RNZ, NZ on Air and
Stuff were investigating a model pioneered by the BBC in Britain under
which the BBC and British newspapers pool some resources to provide local
reporting. It is understood other media companies including NZME and
Allied Press, which owns The Otago Daily Times, are also involved in the
talks. Faafoi said he expected an update on the initiative soon. But he
said that would be only part of a solution for the media”.
Another Tom Pullar-Strecker column discusses this and how Faafoi is going
as the replacement for Clare Curran as Minister of Broadcasting –
could help pave way towards a solution for the media. Pullar-Strecker
discusses the plurality problem of media ownership, and whether the state
might end up undermining private media, and comments “Providing state
subsidies to keep private media on ‘life support’ is not a great solution
either though. It risks subverting the independence of all journalism,
and voters probably wouldn't swallow it anyway.”
And for another interesting discussion of how state-sponsored news
reporting and analysis could undermine democracy, see Jeremy Rose’s Journalism
courtesy of (foreign) taxpayers. He reports on how “Seven senior Kiwi
journalists spent a week in Hawaii late last year and produced just one
story between them. It didn't cost their organisations a cent – the tab
was picked by the US State Department.”
The Herald’s editorial director of business, Fran O'Sullivan, has
recently made the case for the New Zealand government to step up and “put
a price on a vibrant democracy” by backing “the New Zealand media so it
remains a vigorous watchdog against the abuse of power” – see Hamish
Year Honours: Back media, Herald writer Fran O'Sullivan urges Govt.
O’Sullivan says: “It's more important than ever before that journalism
does what it should and holds the powerful to account, in particular in
business and government, where they do have the ability to strongly
influence New Zealand and people's livelihoods”.
Therefore, the New Zealand Government should be addressing the current
media business model problems: “That doesn't mean the Government should
step in and run media, but you could also set up a public-private
partnership in some of these areas where contribution is made in the same
way it's made to creative arts and looking at the value that we place on
media in society and making sure that it is held up because it is
absolutely essential when you look at what is happening internationally
with foreign interference in elections and so forth”.
For an interesting – if bizarre – case study of how governments can
attempt to influence the media, it’s worth looking at the recent run-in
between political journalist Hamish Rutherford and Cabinet Minister Shane
Jones. Back in March, the Stuff journalist broke a story about a
potential conflict of interest for the Minister. Jones responded with an
attack on Rutherford, describing him as a “bunny boiler” and threatening
to dish dirt on him under parliamentary privilege.
Here’s the most important part: “This would be an extraordinary situation
for us to be in and it would contradict media freedom in a small country.
I believe that other journalists have also stayed with Jones. After
nearly a decade of journalism in Wellington, I have socialised with MPs
of every political party. If any MP believes that this is a way to escape
scrutiny then they should make very clear that they feel that way. The
fact that no-one from the Government has properly shot down Jones' threat
to malign me in Parliament will not deter me. But it should be a chilling
warning of the potential consequences for anyone planning to question
this Government's integrity.”
Other state-imposed sanctions and infringements on media practices occur
from time-to-time, and are of varying seriousness or concern. This week
has seen some sort of victory for journalists’ legal right to protect
their sources under the Evidence Act, with a Court of Appeal ruling that
a 2014 broadcast story didn’t require the media to give away information
in a subsequent defamation case – see Bonnie Flaws’ Court
order to reveal Campbell Live story sources overturned.
The judge in the case sided with the media involved and said the removal
of source protection for journalists in this case would “serve to chill
the freedom of the media to report on matters of public interest”.
Shafer argues: “This kind of thinking is normally seen in an
authoritarian state, where “dangerous” ideas are officially cloaked from
view by leaders worried about the threat to their own power.”
Furthermore, “The pact might create a precedent the government will
exploit every time it wants to stifle news coverage in the name of public
For a more positive take on the power of the media, it’s worth reading
The Christchurch Press editorial from last Thursday, celebrating World
News Day, championing local journalism, and proclaiming that, True
or false, we need the news. The newspaper points out that in New
Zealand, as in the US, the media is a good bulwark against the dangerous
rise of fake news.
But it’s the rise of public relations industry the newspaper takes aim
at, pointing out the recent release of statistics on the number of PR
jobs overshadowing journalists: “It was reported that, for every
journalist, there are more than six people working in public relations.
Twenty years ago, it was one journalist for two people in PR. In New
Zealand, the rises and falls are similar. There were 2214 print, radio
and TV journalists in the 2006 census, evenly matched against 2247 PR
professionals. In 2013, the number of journalists had almost halved to
1170 and PR professionals had grown by more than 50 per cent, reaching
3510. People in PR are not necessarily the enemies of truth. But they are
tasked with promoting the interests of clients, which means accentuating
the positive and sometimes obscuring the negative.”
In response to such arguments, marketing and communications specialist
Cas Carter has written in defence of the public relations industry, pushing
back against the concept that “there are two sides at war: Journalists
and PR people. This is not the case” – see : Why
PR firms shouldn't be tarred with the same brush as Trump.
Carter defends her industry: “And the demand for information has
increased, as has the number of channels people expect to get it
through. Organisations can no longer rely on the media to get our story
across – nor should we. In fact, these days organisations are writing and
recording their own content and sending it directly to their audiences
through websites, social media, publications, events and partnerships.
The media takes advantage of that content to help inform their stories
and meet ever-increasing demand to provide 24/7 coverage while facing
rounds of budget and staff cuts.”
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