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Dr Bryce Edwards

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) – see: Press 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 costs.”

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” – see: Uncharted 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 – see: Government 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 Fletcher’s New 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.

Rutherford responded in a column, explaining his side of the story – see: Bunny boiler jokes aside, Shane Jones’ threats could be chilling.

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”.

There is also continued debate about the role of the New Zealand media in dealing with the post-Christchurch situation, and especially the trial of the alleged shooter. The agreement of the New Zealand media about how to cover that trial is sparking some interesting debates in some interesting places. On the Russia Today (RT) website, for example, you can read Igor Ogorodnev’s critique: Media collusion to censor Christchurch mosque shooter trial is understandable… and deeply sinister.

Politico’s Jack Shafer had this to say: “New Zealanders needn’t worry about their government censoring the press. On Wednesday, five of the country’s major news outlets proved themselves only too happy to censor themselves” – see: Why New Zealand’s press just put on blinders for its biggest story.

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 safety.”

In response, The Spinoff’s Alex Braae strongly disagrees, saying “I don’t believe the overseas critics of this decision have any understanding of the context they’re talking about – rather they’re taking a theoretical position and running hard on it” – see: Overseas critics don’t get why our terror trial reporting restrictions matter.

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.”

Finally, at the start of this year, The Spinoff’s editor-in-chief, Duncan Greive published a series of excellent analyses of the main media players in New Zealand, based on what he said were “anonymous conversations with senior executives”. The most interesting, were the following: RNZ in 2018: will well-meaning government interference end its dream run?TVNZ in 2018: the public broadcaster finally remembers who owns itStuff: the media monster no one wants to ownNZME: the media giant still at war after all these years, and MediaWorks in 2018: is the toughest kid in the media finally going to be released from private equity prison?