Dr Sarah Baker on the Declining State of Current Affairs Programmes in New Zealand

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John Campbell.

Opinion Piece by Dr Sarah Baker, Communications lecturer at AUT University – MIL OSI – Source: Auckland University of Technology

WHEN NEWS OF THE POSSIBLE AXING of Campbell Live was announced, outrage ensued from many media observers. However, now that we know Campbell Live will no longer continue, the question remains – what are we losing? Campbell Live is seen as a stalwart of New Zealand current affairs but the erosion of the format means it now resembles something closer to ‘infotainment’.

The fate of Campbell Live speaks to changes in the media landscape around the quantity, quality and production of news and current affairs programmes in New Zealand. Though people are outraged at the axing of Campbell Live, the reality is that current affairs programmes have been steadily altered over time and rarely carry out investigative reporting.

Current affairs television programmes occupy a unique space in journalism and though it is positive that people have taken such an interest in saving Campbell Live, this is the time when larger questions about journalism, current affairs and investigative journalism need to be debated and new solutions found. It is not good enough to simply use the argument of commercial imperatives to justify producing entertainment programmes masquerading as current affairs television.

Extinction or new horizons?
The future of current affairs programmes has been debated at length and will again be re-ignited once a decision has been made on Campbell Live’s replacement. There is a split between those who think the more entertainment oriented programmes gain new audiences and critics who think current affairs and news no longer fulfil their original purpose. Some believe the current affairs genre is on the verge of extinction and no longer functions as it should, while others counter that American programmes like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are able to merge legitimate current affairs with entertainment.

It is important to consider the origins of the televised current affairs genre and the importance of its place in modern journalism. Current affairs programmes began when the BBC introduced Panorama in 1953 – now the world’s longest-running current affairs programme.  These programmes took more time to tell stories and gave audiences a deeper look at important issues.

The major distinction between current affairs programmes and news was that the former allowed journalists and interviewers to critique, pose questions, investigate and challenge and the format permitted deeper investigations than news items. The early current affairs programmes focused on stories that might take weeks, months or even years to make so they were expensive to make but often probed important issues and contributed to society’s wellbeing.

The dawn of meaningful New Zealand current affairs programming came when Brian Edwards began interviewing and holding politicians to account on Gallery in 1969.

Neo-liberalism and profit motives
New Zealand in the 1980s followed Britain and the United States in the move to neo-liberalism and media was part of the deregulation wave.  In that environment news and current affairs primary purpose was to make profits and this ushered New Zealand’s personality-led current affairs offering Holmes. Research shows the profit driven model developed in the late 1980s forced New Zealand news and current affairs to an entertainment oriented persuasion.

My research into current affairs programmes from 1984 to 2014 shows the removal of politics and serious subject matter from current affairs programmes and a move to entertainment oriented subjects, a trend that accelerated from the 1980s to 1990s and with even greater examples of ‘tabloidisation’ in the 2000s.

Under this commercial broadcasting system it is easier to produce ‘entertaining’ current affairs but this means serious issues are shelved in favour of fun, light hearted banter and personality led programmes. Though there are overseas examples of fun and topical news programmes that inform while they entertain, the problem remains in New Zealand that if all current affairs programmes apply an entertainment bias where do audiences get more serious information?

With stories like the mass surveillance Edward Snowden revealed and the government’s role in this, as just one example, we need investigative current affairs journalism. There are issues and news that need to be explored that do not fit into a quick news story or sound bite. These considerations must be a priority for broadcasters no matter what the commercial considerations are.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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