Political Roundup: The 2015 Mediapocalypse

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Putting John Key into a caged prison rape joke was one of the low points in the New Zealand media this year. But there were plenty of other low points for an industry that faced huge challenges and change during 2015.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Putting John Key into a caged prison rape joke was one of the low points in the New Zealand media this year. But there were plenty of other low points for an industry that faced huge challenges and change during 2015.

Democracy is the poorer in 2015 due to a decline in the state of New Zealand’s mainstream media. Of course the media has been suffering all sorts of woes in recent years – ranging from falling audiences to newsroom redundancies – but 2015 seemed particularly severe, leading to talk of the death of the mainstream media.

Mediaworks kills off quality TV

The biggest political media story of the year was the demise of Campbell Live, a controversy I covered in columns in April and May, which raised bigger questions about the state of the media – see: The politics of axing Campbell LiveThe Revolution will not be televised and Who killed Campbell Live? 

John Campbell finally talked about his axing in a Metro magazine interview with Simon Wilson, which is now online – see: After the fall

Later in the year, another casualty occurred at Mediaworks, with the killing off of the current affairs show 3D, previously known as 3rd Degree. This was examined by Colin Peacock in TV3 current affairs show facing the axe. Peacock quotes NZ on Air chief executive Jane Wrightson saying: “Investigative journalism is fundamental to a strong democracy and national debate. It is becoming increasingly scarce in New Zealand due to the commercial pressures faced by broadcasters and the news media generally in a small country”.

This month Rachel Smalley reflected on the axing of 3D, and was less pessimistic than some: “I don’t think we’re witnessing the death of current affairs – just the death of current affairs in its current broadcasting model, and at the moment we’re going through a bit of a messy divorce” – see: 3D’s axing not the death of current affairs TV

But others were concerned about the direction the company bosses were taking TV3, and Jane Bowron worried what they might do with the upcoming revamp of their 6pm news. She advises the company to slow down: “TV3 needs to calm down, take stock and stop trying to reach a destination without knowing the name of its goal, like a train pulling into a station so fast it hasn’t got a clue how it got there, where it’s going to next, or if it will ever ride again” – see: The grim fairytale of MediaWorks gains traction

Looking back on the year of Mediaworks changes, the Spinoff’s Duncan Greive assessed the MediaWorks’ strategy, spotting some positives in the company’s performance, but saying ultimately “hard news has been decimated” – see: Swapping news for reality – looking back on a bad year for TV3. He concludes “the company’s owners, Oaktree Capital, now possess a media company which is no longer anything like so valuable as it was.”

Some journalists pointed the blame at the company CEO, and a boycott of Mark Weldon’s wine company was urged – see John Edens’s MediaWorks staff urged to boycott CEO Mark Weldon’s Central Otago wine

More decline and disruption

Every other media organisation faced some sort of significant decline or disruption in 2015. Newspapers continued to suffer print readership decline, with Richard Harman reporting on the latest statistics showing that “The number of copies of New Zealand daily newspapers sold over the past five years has plunged by 23%” – see: The Declining state of New Zealand newspapers

Some of the newspaper audience was shifting online for news, as reported by Joshua Riddiford in Stuff and NZ Herald audiences continue to grow in Nielsen’s latest online rankings

The newspaper companies had to restructure to meet the changing media environment, with major changes at both Fairfax and the Herald. Major operational changes at the Herald and its allied companies were announced in October – see the Herald’s NZME harnesses the power of one newsroom. And at virtually the same time, Mediaworks announced its new “Newshub” to launch in 2016 – see TV3’s MediaWorks reveals new multi-platform news service

Radio New Zealand changed its name to just RNZ. And it undertook major cost-saving cuts of $1m – see Pattrick Smellie’s RNZ stalwart Hewitt Humphrey facing redundancy in broadcaster’s latest restructure

And at RadioLive, the last remaining business radio programme was cancelled – see Nick Grant’s NBR picks up cancelled RadioLive business show (paywalled), However the ten-year old show has shifted to NBR’s own digital audio platform.

And when it comes to the parliamentary press gallery, there was a major loss with the retirement of the person I regarded as the leading columnist – see my Tributes to John Armstrong

Introspection on the media

There was a huge amount of reflection and analysis of the changing media environment during the year. Perhaps the most pessimistic and critical was given last month by veteran current affairs producer Phil Wallington in his keynote speech to an audience of television workers – see: A TV Current Affairs Warhorse Describes The State Of It All

About halfway through Wallington provides two explanations for why the media is no longer able to hold the powerful to account: 1) Shrinking newsroom budgets, and 2) The increasing power of political spin-doctors. 

He also bemoans the career of journalists today who face a precarious existence on (mostly) low pay. 

He explains that the industry is now also very narrow in terms of the backgrounds of the journalists: “Gone are the days when young people of very diverse backgrounds and often humble circumstances could seek a meaningful career in journalism. Now, it is too often a half-way house to a better paid job in PR or communications. This is not good for this country’s democratic system. The main driver of a free society should be the ability for people to speak out. But now only a very few diverse and questioning voices are heard and the orthodox and heterodox views are shunned. They have been supplanted by a bland, mindless and consumer driven consensus.”

More strong opinions about the demise of the media were put in a one-hour discussion ostensibly about Dirty Politics – watch Martyn Bradbury’s 1 Yr on from Dirty Politics hosted by John Campbell with Nicky Hager, Fran O’Sullivan & Dita De Boni

A much more optimistic view was put forward by RNZ CEO Paul Thompson in June – see: Disruption to media becomes the story. He tells the story of the evolution of the media through four eras, based on technological disruption. He suspects “we may be now entering a fourth media age – one characterised by the atomisation of news and its re-distribution by global content ecosystems, such as Apple and Facebook.”

For Thompson “This is exciting as it potentially makes possible a new age of journalism in which the creators and curators of news and current affairs work collaboratively with the smartest and best-resourced companies in the world. The possibility of these new partnerships endorses the on-going vital importance and the appeal of journalism.” See also Duncan Greive’s “Think of Us as Yeast” – An Interview with Paul Thompson, Head of RNZ

A group of organisations established the Civics and Media Project this year, which lead to a number of forums discussing the future of information – see Radio NZ’s Will we have the information we need in 2030? As part of this, you can also watch John Campbell in conversation with five students from intermediate schools in Auckland about their expectations for civil society in 2030 – see: John Campbell with intermediate students.

Similarly, towards the end of the year, Radio New Zealand hosted a panel discussion with journalists and academics about the future of quality media – you can read about this and listen to the 52-minute discussion here: The Shape of the Media

But for the most comprehensive run down of developments in the media sector, especially around media company ownership, see Merja Myllylahti’s annual JMAD New Zealand Media Ownership Report 2015. According to this, New Zealand’s media companies are now concentrated in the hands of financial institutions.

The report is especially interesting in dealing with new corporate partnerships, alliances and new entries to market. For more on such partnerships, see Mediawatch’s Media companies in the shadow of internet giants. It seems that the idea of “cartels” might become a positive term in the media industry.

Media bias and power

Criticisms of the media’s performance and biases loomed large this year. These were reflected in earlier columns I wrote: Is the media turning on John Key?Is the media biased? and White men in charge of the message? 

In terms of media criticisms and evaluations of politicians, David Farrar has published his 2nd biannual media opinion statistics. This exercise examines “the opinion of editorials and columnists at the two major media sites of Stuff and NZ Herald” and categorises to what extent they are favourable or unfavourable about the four biggest parties. 

Farrar’s figures suggest that the media may have turned against Labour in recent months. For example “Up until March, 74% of Herald columns and editorials on Labour were positive, but in the last six months only 25% have been.” 

In terms of the political media, Rodney Hide expressed his dissatisfaction, not with any bias, but that “Political reporting is now like a fixed wrestling match: ritualistic and predictable.  We already know the questions. Worse, we already know the answers” – see his September NBR column, Ask dumb questions, get dumb answers (paywalled).

Hide says “We yearn for something a little richer” about what is going on in politics, and he blames the market for not working rather than the media companies: “It’s the market at work. It’s what the average person wants that counts. And it isn’t politics, policy or economics.  We might yearn for something richer like Mozart but the country wants pop. It won’t be long now and politics will be morphed into pure entertainment, a cross between X-Factor and MasterChef.”

Political interviewing also came in for some criticism earlier this month, following on from a minister having a bad experience – see Sam Sachdeva’s Peter Dunne called ‘moron’ after fiery interview with radio host

This led Laura Walters to say: “It’s important to put the hard questions to those in positions of power but when does a hard-nosed interview cross the line?” – see: There’s a place for hard-nosed interviews but not aggression.

The use of “soft news” by politicians appears to be on the rise, or at least is being discussed more. Jacinda Ardern became renowned for using this vehicle. For example in November Ardern appeared in a multi-page spread in the Women’s Weekly – see Kelly Bertrand’s Jacinda’s island paradise

David Farrar reacted: “It is quite legitimate to do soft pieces as a way of connecting with voters on political issues. Many politicians do it. But if you read the article, there isn’t a single mention of a political issue. It is 100% about holidays in Niue (where her parents live and work). It could almost be a travel advertorial for Niue.  So yes it is legitimate to do interviews and profiles with soft magazines, to connect to voters on issues. But is it legitimate when there is nothing at all about politics in there?” – see: Jacinda in Women’s Weekly

Ardern also took over from Phil Goff as the Sunday Star Times’ Labour Party columnist. But the verdicts didn’t seem too positive. After her first effort, up against Collins, the NBR’s David Cohen panned it, saying “the competition will be stiff to see which of the two political contributors is the more hypnotically dull” – see: Duncan and the dame (paywalled). 

But Cohen also railed against the media publishing the propaganda of politicians: “I don’t mean to be obtuse or a spoilsport but why are politicians on the public payroll using tax dollars to regularly promote their own brand without any kind of editorial intercession? I forget. They need to be given news space to flog airbrushed versions of themselves because – why again?”

Maori TV and the Establishment

Maori TV used to be seen as the saviour of quality political and current affairs programming, but its stocks have fallen significantly this year. Much of this has related to the controversy that arose from the Native Affairs programme carrying out investigative research into the finances of the Kohanga Reo National Trust Board.

A clampdown on Native Affairs appeared to be the outcome and in June the host of the programme, Mihingarangi Forbes, announced her decision to leave Maori TV, subsequently going to RNZ. 

According to David Fisher: “The Native Affairs team’s investigation into management and spending at the Kohanga Reo trust was considered by Maoridom’s old guard as a disrespectful way to probe an establishment organisation led by matriarch Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi” – see: Star Maori TV broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes quits

In September Forbes appeared along with her former producer Annabelle Lee at a Wintec Press Club, and explained her departure – which was covered in a blog post by Stephen Stratford – see: Wintec Press Club: Mihi Forbes and Annabelle Lee

Responding to this, Danyl Mclauchlan wrote: “What happened at Maori TV is one of the most clear-cut cases of establishment censorship imaginable. Journalists started asking uncomfortable questions; the establishment got angry and imposed a new leader on the organisation who shut everything down” – see: Maori TV and the mediapocalypse

For other very good items on the fracas, see Dave Armstrong’s It’s not Maori TV ‘s job to be respectful and John Drinnan’s Radio NZ seeks cure to ratings malaise

There were other controversies at Maori TV this year. In March, the channel initially decided not to broadcast a haka performance which criticised the broadcaster – see Rosemary Rangitauira and Andrew Mcrae’s Maori TV accused of censorship. For an interesting discussion of this, see Morgan Godfery’s On the role of criticism: Te Matatini

Alternative media

With the problems facing the mainstream media, are there alternatives that might arise and fill the growing gaps? Certainly the rise of The Spin-Off website (expanding beyond its initial focus on television, and appointing Toby Manhire as “political editor”), has been a highlight of the year. 

Spin-off editor Duncan Greive has published all sorts of interesting pieces about media figures. See, for example, An Exit Interview with Simon Wilson, Editor of Metro 2010-2015, and “Kind of a Dimwit” – An Interview with Steve Braunias

In the latter, Braunias gives both praise and condemnation to his former teacher Karl du Fresne, who responded with his blog post, Steve Braunias and the Auckland media priesthood

There are plenty of other online resources full of important material about New Zealand society and politics – such as the brilliant Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Dave Armstrong has written a tribute to this, but laments the news that no significant resources are being provided by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to keep the site updated – see: An online jewel that may become a relic.

The Scoop website has been through some big changes this year too, and in 2016 might be about to crystallise into something more important. According to Martyn Bradbury a new editor is about to take over – see: Max Rashbrooke tipped to take over Scoop. And the website ran one of the more interesting critiques of the mainstream media – see Alison McCulloch’s Stop The Press.

Finally, there are alternatives to be found out in the blogosphere, and Martyn Bradbury has, in his own inimitable style, given his verdicts on how they’ve fared this year – see: The Daily Blog NZ Blogger Alignment Awards 2015

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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