Thursday, February 22, 2024

Graham Adams: Media chiefs struggle to understand democracy

News outlets compromised in the Treaty principles debate.

Listening to Sinead Boucher speak last week at a parliamentary hearing on the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, it was easy to be captivated momentarily by her rhetoric about democracies requiring a strong and free media.

Addressing the select committee MPs, she said: “A strong, independent news media is essential… As elected representatives in a democracy, I know you really understand the necessity for a strong, free press… that helps inform and educate New Zealanders on the issues that are really important to them.”

Then you remember suddenly she is talking about Stuff.

Stuff, which Boucher bought for $1 in 2020, has an extensive list of no-go areas — including gender critical views on trans issues and even mild scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Yet she didn’t blush as she extolled the role her company allegedly plays in informing New Zealanders about the topics they are vitally interested in.

Her view of democracy was equally divorced from reality. As New Zealand immerses itself in a highly charged debate about the “principles” of the Treaty of Waitangi and its status in New Zealand’s political life, it is alarming to find that Stuff already has a fixed editorial position on the matter.

Stuff’s charter, published in November 2020, states: “We commit to embed the Treaty of Waitangi principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection in the ethics and practice of our business.”

Anyone who is not ideologically blinkered can see that an interpretation of the Treaty as mandating a 50:50 partnership between iwi and the Crown — as it is often defined — is the basis for an ethno-state not a liberal democracy. Or certainly not a democracy dedicated to equal suffrage based on one person, one vote of equal value. Yet Boucher presumably sees no contradictions in her posing as a defender of democracy.

Are we to assume that Boucher is simply misguided and doesn’t understand how a democracy functions? Or has she adopted the extraordinary argument championed by Labour’s senior ministers in the previous government — including Willie Jackson, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern — that “democracy has changed” and a minority’s wishes are judged to be equal to the majority’s?

Whatever Boucher’s rationale, how likely is it that Stuff will “inform and educate New Zealanders” on the proposed Treaty Principles Bill — which will affirm equal political rights for all New Zealanders irrespective of their ancestry — when it has already adopted an editorial position in favour of the Treaty as a partnership between iwi and the Crown?

Stuff’s chiefs must have also agreed to the criteria for those media organisations wanting a share of the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF). The first of the general eligibility criteria requires all applicants to show a “commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to Māori as a Te Tiriti partner” — alongside a commitment to te reo Māori. The section describing the fund’s goals includes “actively promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner“.

And you’d have to say Stuff was a very successful applicant, scooping up $4.8 million of public money. It sits in third position in the table of companies receiving the most taxpayer money — behind RNZ, at $5.8 million, and NZME leading the pack at $6.88 million.

The need to agree to present the Treaty as a partnership in order to qualify for millions in PIJF cash didn’t deter RNZ’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, from also banging the democracy drum at the select committee hearing: “A robust media system is not a ‘nice to have’. It’s absolutely essential for us as a sovereign nation, it’s essential to a cohesive, informed democracy and it’s the bedrock of our sovereignty as a nation.”

However, any media chief who was truly dedicated to democracy — or even dedicated to media independence — would have demanded the Treaty clauses in the PIJF agreement be struck out before they would agree to sign it.

NZME last June published its “editorial code of conduct and ethics” for all its media arms, including the NZ Herald. Under the heading “Te Tiriti o Waitangi”, it declared: “We celebrate the Treaty of Waitangi as the founding document of New Zealand.”

In short, NZME has already taken a particular position on the Treaty. Yet, its status in our constitutional framework is one of the questions that are hotly contested in the principles debate.

Senior academics such as Professor Elizabeth Rata from Auckland University argue that the 1852 Constitution Act is a far more plausible candidate for the nation’s founding document.

Former Labour Prime Minister David Lange was also firmly of the view that the Treaty didn’t qualify. As he said in the Bruce Jesson Lecture in 2000: “The Treaty cannot be any kind of founding document, as it is sometimes said to be. It does not resolve the question of sovereignty, if only because one version of it claims one form of sovereignty and the other version claims the opposite.

“The Court of Appeal once, absurdly, described it as a partnership between races, but it obviously is not. The signatories are, on one side, a distinctive group of people, and on the other, a government which established itself in New Zealand and whose successors represent all of us, whether we are descendants of the signatories or not…

“As our increasingly dismal national day [at Waitangi] continues to show, the Treaty is no basis for nationhood. It doesn’t express the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and it doesn’t have any unifying concept.”

The debate over whether the Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document is obviously not a fringe concern yet the NZ Herald has already committed itself to a fixed position on it.

NZME must also have agreed, of course, to present the Treaty as a partnership to have been granted nearly $7 million in PIJF funding. And while the fund is now closed to new applicants, some of its existing roles and projects will continue into 2026.

Just how blinkered the mainstream media is about its compromised position was starkly on show in an episode aired early this month of RNZ’s political podcast The Detail (funded until recently by the PIJF, and now by NZ on Air).

Titled “Democracy in danger when lies go unchecked”, it was hosted by Newsroom’s co-editor Mark Jennings. He lambasted Winston Peters for having said after last year’s election that the media had been bribed by the $55 million on offer via the PIJF. This was the “lie” referenced in the podcast’s title, and Jennings was adamant Peters should have been called out more forcefully by his Cabinet colleagues for saying it.

Noting that an AUT study last year showed the public’s trust in mainstream media had fallen to 42 per cent, Jennings said: “In my 22 years as head of TV3 news and seven years as co-editor of Newsroom I’ve seen the public trust in the media decline to a point where it is impacting our democracy.”

With seemingly scant insight into the fact that the mainstream media only has itself to blame for its dwindling audiences and plummeting levels of trust, along with the inevitable repercussions for “our democracy”, Jennings preferred to blame the messenger, notably the Deputy Prime Minister.

The podcast ends with a breath-taking admission by Jennings that vividly reveals just how confused the mainstream media is about democracy and its responsibility to report fairly and accurately.

Jennings: “There has been quite a lot of talk and discussion in the media — particularly among senior editorial people — about whether we should even report Winston Peters’ attacks on the media. When he says there’s corruption — and clearly there’s no basis for that — whether we should all just stick together, and decide not to report him.”

When he asked Victoria University communications lecturer Peter Thompson what he thought of the idea, Thompson replied with a laugh: “If I was a news editor, I think I’d find that very tempting! However, I think that also might play into Mr Peters’ hands — or at least his perception that the media were conspiring against him.”

Neither Jennings nor Thompson seemed to see any ethical problem in media chiefs colluding to decide what the public should or should not be told, especially if it concerned anything they saw as being against their own interests.

Extraordinarily, that seemed to be justification enough — even when it is the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister they might be censoring.

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Anonymous said...

Note item that apparently Luxon views treaty as sacrosanct - a partnership.

This is all so twisted.

Anonymous said...

Poor Sinead is struggling to understand democracy because for the last six years she's been dealing with a full on Kakistocracy.

Eamon Sloan said...

Does anyone know who are the cornerstone investors in Stuff? Can anyone guess?

Anonymous said...

Graham, oh Graham, surely you’re not that naive. “Trial By Media” is an adage as old as the hills. Jennings should know. He’s been presenting the News for longer than most. Why would he suddenly have an epiphany now and choose to present unbiased reporting. Another old media industry adage, “If it bleeds it leads” tells you about the cynical thinking of media gatekeepers and how “Gotcha” journalism has evolved into censorship/ propaganda. It’s why so many media insiders are alcoholics. Can’t really live with themselves.

DeeM said...

Justin Trudeau's been banging the same drum in Canada recently. Crying about the rise of independent media sources, or conspiracy theorists as he calls them, and the decline of State media.
He wants to regulate independent media out of business so people can return to the one source of truth.

The Left, whether it's politicians or the media, are oblivious to the real reason people are deserting mainstream news in droves.
They don't trust it. It's biased. It seeks to indoctrinate not inform.

In the Left's world, the poor, ignorant, easily-led public need to be herded back into the fold and told exactly what they want us to hear.

Anna Mouse said...

When any 'media' organisation that claims to be representing the fourth estate in a democracy takes a stand or aligns itself with any issue political, social, scientific or economic they cease being a representative of truth entirely.

In that position they place themselves at the very heart of corrupt complicity to whichever political, social, scientific or eceonomic course that is being driven by their masters.

To take a stand or to take funds from any political, social, scientific or eceonomic arena is in fact media suicide because the audience sees the ommissions, they see the complicity and they then they remove their trust. Once trust is gone, it is gone forever in the media arena.

Every single editor or head of these organisations along with every compliant employee is guilty of the corruption of their standing as representatives of the fourth estate.

Instead of being those that emphasise the independence of the media they have become the "fourth branch" in which the media is not independent of the government.

They have no escape back door now. They are doomed by their own corruptive compliance and even today in knowing this they act like they are the bastions of truth all the while they still refer to their audience not as New Zelanders but as the affectional Kiwis.

They continue to disrespect their audience by never referring to New Zealand in their mentions on TV but only as Aotearoa, another untrue name once used only as another affectation.

Legacy media in New Zealand, particularly those that have sucked upon the PJIF teat have doomed themselves through their compliance, not to truth, but to lies and false narrative across an almost all encompassing spectrum.

They have become fiction speakers and once you stop speaking truth to power your fate is sealed.

The fact they choose not to see this is exactly like the old Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote:

“We know that they are lying, they know that they are lying, they even know that we know they are lying, we also know that they know we know they are lying too, they of course know that we certainly know they know we know they are lying too as well, but they are still lying. In our country, the lie has become not just moral category, but the pillar industry of this country.”

A once professional, highly regarded group of trusted people have destroyed their industry all for a few coins and now the lies told in New Zealand have become the pillar upon which they stand as their industry crumbles around them.

Graham Adams said...

Anonymous, I get called many things, but "naive" is a first!
Perhaps I didn't make my point clear enough. What is extraordinary to my mind is that Mark Jennings said the quiet bit out loud for the whole nation to hear... that is, media chiefs have discussed censoring what the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister says if they don't like what he is saying.
It's the unselfconscious admission that they are willing to conspire — rather than just happening to take a similar view — that I found remarkable and disquieting.
Can you point to a similar example of possible media collusion that has been announced to the public by a senior journalist?

Anonymous said...

Graham, I said, surely you’re not that naive. Emphasis on that you’re not naive. Neither am I. Jennings & co may usually play their cards close to their chest, and only make their true thoughts known behind closed newsroom doors. Nonetheless, their sins of omission and what they present, or don’t (call it censorship), have long been visible to the public, on many issues. That hardly needed an on the record admission. It’s what the media chief’s believe is their duty to do.

Gary Peters said...

Graham one point I'd like to elaborate on is your comment that Court of Appeal labelled the treaty a partnership. It did not do so quite like that but said it was "akin" to a partnership in the both parties have responsibilities, responsibilities that most would agree that maori make no effort to uphold. Luxon also used the word "akin" when I last heard him speak on the subject.

Describing something as "akin" to something else is not the same as ascribing it the same qualities but maybe New Zealand should be holding maori to the same standards as they seem keen to hold us to and maybe if the "poverty" that exists in certain sectors could have some attention applied to it by those same maori elite that demand we solve all their problems.

Graham Adams said...

Thanks, Gary. I quoted Lange saying it had been (absurdly) described as a "partnership" so I can't amend his quote!
I reread the Lands case judgment early last year, and from memory I remember being surprised how often the word "partnership" was actually used in it. I had assumed "akin to" was as far as it went. I'll have to go back to read it again to check.
I agree entirely with your point that "partnership" seems too often to be a one-way street.