Speaker by Various Artists

17

What almost everyone is missing about KiwiBuild

by Barnaby Bennett

Many people are ripping into KiwiBuild at the moment. A lot of these criticisms have a strong whiff of partisan heckling – this is politics after all – some of them are fair and others are just looking for trouble.

One complaint, largely coming from the left, is that the houses are not affordable in any meaningful sense (ie, they are too expensive) and a second is that the market should just be left to supply housing and government shouldn’t subsidise this (ie, they are too cheap). But almost all of them, so far, are missing the real and important medium and long-term value of the KiwiBuild programme.

I’ll discuss this below, but firstly to address three legitimate claims about KiwiBuild: 

1. KiwiBuild is not really about building affordable houses in the short-term. Labour’s framing of KiwiBuild is about building lots of affordable housing, and this makes a clear, easy-to-understand sell. This probably was the plan when KiwiBuild was first announced years ago under the leadership of David Shearer, but the programme has morphed a bit since then.

National made big changes to housing between the original development and now. The sale price is not especially affordable in any meaningful sense of the word in relation to incomes, but in the medium and long-term the programme will have a cumulative effect of making housing across the country more affordable.

Also, the alternative models led by the former government in Auckland (in which special housing areas made housing more expensive) and in Christchurch (which gave a development monopoly to a company which led to very slow development) did not work. But I guess criticism about the affordability of the houses is fair in this regard. The problem is that changing this in either direction would seriously endanger the viability of the whole programme. 

2. Kiwibuild isn’t state housing. Saying the government should build more state housing is fair, but this isn’t a criticism of KiwiBuild. They are separate programmes. The $2 billion being spent on creating 100,000 houses would only buy 3,500 state houses. Indeed, the current government is expanding the existing state housing stock, has organised large scale emergency housing for the homeless, and has reversed both National's appalling dividend and the large-scale sell-off of the housing to private and non-profit agencies.

Kiwibuild isn’t meant to be state housing, but is being integrated with state housing on lots of sites, as I’ll explain below. A parallel programme to build thousands of new state houses exists, but it is expensive, and the real value of KiwiBuild, as explained below, would not be addressed by transferring the money to state housing construction. KiwiBuild is not subsidised housing like state housing and is more similar to the original state housing, which was government-built housing for workers, not housing for the country's most vulnerable. 

Further, this is not the first government to get involved in land-use sub-divisions for the benefit of ballot winning young couples and families. 33,000 family farms were created by the state and allocated by ballot in the 19th and 20th century.

3. KiwiBuild is probably not going to add a huge extra supply to the total housing stock. The 100,000 houses can easily be misunderstood as being a total addition to what would have been built if it didn’t exist. Several people have argued, probably fairly, that it is instead largely replacing housing that would have otherwise happened anyway. Alternatively, the Reserve Bank recently announced that many of the buildings will add to the supply. New Zealand is building lots of houses, and regardless of the government would have built at close to our capacity anyway. Kiwibuild doesn’t change this much in terms of numbers. There is some debate about this. But in the long run this is less important than it might seem.

The real issue, in the medium and long term, is the location and size of the houses. The legacy of KiwiBuild will be to address these two major problems. There are three reasons KiwiBuild houses will have an important and valuable medium and long-term benefit for New Zealand. 

To explain this, some historical context is needed. There is a big gap between 1989 and 2008 in which national government stopped being involved in land use. Interestingly, this corresponds with the explosion of suburbia, infrastructure deficits, and the huge increases in house prices.

The last National government intervened into this with the huge motorways/RONS that pumped billions into roading and subsequent associated rural/outer suburban development. The new government is continuing an interventionist approach (which all infrastructure is, ultimately), but shifting the main modes to different forms of public transport.

KiwiBuild needs to be understood as a partner to this broader shift away from greenfield development and associated high cost (for both economic and environmental objectives) development and towards intensive development (infill and along growth corridors) Alongside the big state housing programme, and the 100,000 KiwiBuild houses is a new $4 billion rapid transit fund. This all means smaller houses and more efficient use of land.

So ...

1. KiwiBuild will add a big supply of smalller, better designed houses to the New Zealand stock. A lot of the land for the KiwiBuild programmes is either surplus land close to cities, or land that has been generated by the demolition of old state houses. In both cases newer, denser and higher-quality state housing is being produced alongside the KiwiBuild houses and new private sector housing. Some, such as Vanessa Cole, have argued this is a privatisation of public land, but I think this misunderstands the value of creating lots of smaller, better located and better designed housing.

The state housing supply is being increased by this government, and unlike developments in Australia (which often have as little as 5% of ‘affordable’ or public housing)  the New Zealand developments are being based on a ⅓, ⅓, ⅓ model, which means the state gets to positively influence the kinds of development, while also creating downward pressure and opportunities on the open market.

The main legacy of KiwiBuild is to create a ‘new’ type of housing stock of small, good quality houses. Early buyers might own these for 5 or 10 years, but these houses will provide access into the market for 50 or 100 years. The focus on the first buyer misses their bigger value over the long run. New Zealand has around 1,500,000 households, so KiwiBuild will add another 6-7%. If KiwiBuild lasts ten years and hits its targets it will add a significant new kind of housing type to the country's stock, possibly more if private developers follow suit. 

2. Kiwibuild is a key part of redesigning big parts of New Zealand cities to be better integrated into transport, and commercial development and other public institutions. The inner-city developments in Mangere, Mt. Albert and other locations in Queenstown, Porirua and Wellington are being integrated with new public transport lines, access to public amenity including schools and working alongside council long-term plans.

This is the first government in New Zealand history (or at least in 100 years)  to show any real awareness of how to influence the long-term growth of our cities, and while it's early days and it’s far from perfect, this is again a vastly different set of priorities to the building of large motorways and the associated construction of large and expensive houses on the outskirts of cities.

KiwiBuild gives the government the ability to use smaller and more compact houses to drive these larger urban moves that will make our cities more walkable, more affordable, more environmentally robust. If you disagree with these things, or the efficacy of this approach, then great, let's debate that, but the cost price at sale is a red herring. 

3. KiwiBuild is creating new delivery infrastructures for housing, and thus enabling new systems, for more sustainable, warm, safe, dry, and affordable housing that the broader market will be able to access. (ie, prefab housing made in factories out of New Zealand wood).

In June this year KiwiBuild put out public info on the building of large off-site factories to construct the houses. This is exactly the kind of large scale investment that is only possible with a surety of supply. Many attempts to get these kinds of processes going in New Zealand have failed in recent years because the market, by itself its too small and unpredictable. Creating a steady supply stream also raises exciting possibilities for larger-scale vertical integration with growing and harvesting of trees, milling in New Zealand, and transformation into high quality housing, possibly by the same or nested companies or iwi. 

It is perhaps the possibility of sustained, long-term economic and urban transformation of industry and our cities that most scares the opposition at the moment. The experiments of the last 30 years have failed and major policy shift is needed. It’s long overdue. 

With thanks to Brendon Harre for stats and critique of this. 

5

Russian Underground part 2

by Clinton Logan

"Photography is not allowed" barked a policeman. 

Da, foto v poryadke! I respond in clunky Russian.

"Nyet!"

Da! 

I'd spent three days in Moscow's metro system and this was the tenth time I'd been told off. Arguing with Russian officials isn't something I'd recommend but I'd researched the rules and was becoming increasingly belligerent about my rights as a photographer. When I get fixated on a goal I can get a bit freakish about it.

Capturing these images took a bit of perseverance as the Moscow police were fairly militant about the use of camera gear in the metro. Most were okay with it, but some maintained a stance based on an outdated holdover from the Soviet era. Back then photographing the metro (and other strategic installations) was considered an act of espionage. Not everyone got the memo, as photography is now completely legal. 

The use of a tripod was proving problematic as it transformed my activities into a "professional" shoot which still requires a permit. The low light mandated its use, so I developed a strategy where I'd frame the shot, dial in the camera settings, and then at the last minute open the tripod and snap the image. Typically I'd capture five or six frames before a policeman would wander over and shake his finger at me.

I don't want to paint a distorted picture about the authorities here. I've observed the way they treat drunks, unlicensed vendors, buskers, and annoying hyper-focused Kiwis, and in all cases they've been incredibly polite and tolerant. 

So with that, I want to thank the Moscow Metro Authority for allowing me to complete part two of my Russian metro series. I hope you enjoy these images. It's one of the most incredible urban spaces I've had the pleasure to explore.

7

Russian Underground part 1

by Clinton Logan

Sankt-Peterburg: opulent chandeliers, ornate ceilings, mosaics and artworks are everywhere. Sculptures of poets and revolutionaries flank marble lined corridors while deco stained glass provides subtle illumination to highly polished floors.

And that's just the subway. 

When you purchase your pass and descend the 90 metre long escalator into one of the deepest metros on the planet, a completely different world opens up. Spotlessly clean and efficient, it's no exaggeration to say the Sankt-Peterburg metro system rivals many five-star hotel lobbies.

That's not by accident. Primarily built in the Soviet era the metro was considered to be more just a transitionary space to catch a train but a "palace to the people" and was decorated as such. 

The Sankt-Peterburg metro is a living work of art that provides fascinating insight into the evolving aesthetics of postwar Russia. Intricate socialist-realist reliefs that pay tribute to the pillars of the old USSR: electrical, oil, mining, and metal embed into solid marble. Mosaics reflecting historical events, novelists, and philosophies of triumphalism transition to deco and then onto contemporary spaces inspired by early 20th-century aeronautics. These not only stunning symbols of beauty: the variation of design from station to station also provides useful navigation cues for travelling the system.

I shot these photos over a span of three days at times ranging from 10am to 1am. More than two million people travel each day on the St Petersburg metro so certain times and stations get very busy. Some images took me 30+ minutes to capture a shot free of people. Others were taken at less frequently used stations and were easier to get. Some were just a result of lucky timing.

Timing the trains for a motion blur that maximizes the internal blue light effect also took a bit of patience. 

I was especially pleased with the Маяко́вская station shot (girl reading book next to the Red Poet moasic) That location is one of the busiest interchanges with streams of people constantly passing. I just happened to get there when she was reading with no one else in the shot. That shot I was able to get in the first two minutes of arriving.

If – no, when – you find yourself in this amazing city be sure to spend time in the metro. There's nothing else like it in the world.

Next up: the Moscow metro.

Clinton Logan spends a part of each year exploring strange and interesting places on his motorcyle and posting images and observations about them to his Facebook account.

3

Belfast, where the walls stand yet

by Clinton Logan

What's your darkest secret?

She leaned toward me, locked her blue eyes with mine, and whispered in the most intoxicating Irish accent...

"Clinton, I ran guns for the IRA."

With those six words I was hooked. What followed has circulated in my head for years.

Like many, I'd followed the violence and unrest in Northern Ireland on TV. Locals refer to this period as "the troubles," an understated way of describing what amounted to a civil war that still simmers to this day. On one side, the predominately Catholic nationalists believe the North should join a united, independent Ireland. Opposing them are the mainly Protestant loyalists who want Northern Ireland to remain as part of the United Kingdom.

In 1969 British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland, at first to protect civilians, but soon got entangled in fighting paramilitary groups such as the IRA. The whole thing devolved into a very ugly situation which killed 3,500 and injured over 50,000 in the decades that followed. Groups on both sides claimed they were acting for the good of the people, but in the end caused nothing but misery.

I was compelled to retrace my friend's steps, to travel the streets and explore the neighbourhoods she talked about with such fire. I wanted to meet the people on both sides of the "peace walls" — the seven metre high fences that separate loyalist suburbs from nationalist — and hopefully gain a more tangible understanding of this conflict. 

At 6:00pm each night a guard swings a massive gate on its hinges to close off the throughway that connects the Falls and Shankill districts of Belfast. I turn to the man next to me and ask a rather naive question.

Why are they closing the street off?

"Ter stop dem killin' each other" 

Officially the troubles ended in 1996 but 22 years on parts of Northern Ireland remain fiercely territorial. In Belfast's Shankill neighbourhood Union Jack flags hang from houses and portraits of a young Queen Elizabeth are posted everywhere. 

On the other side of the security wall the imagery is in stark contrast. Not the Irish flag as one might expect, but murals of the Palestinian struggle, Nelson Mandela, and others. The nationalist community align their message with dispossessed people and stolen land as much as they do with the goal of a united Irish Republic. Just inches of steel and concrete separate communities with mindsets fixed miles apart.

The Irish woman and I shared an interest in alternative music. She was a Belfast punk in the '80s, I was a kiwi kid living a half world away. Although it would be decades before our paths would cross, we were unknowingly linked by a remarkable piece of vinyl. 

At the height of the troubles the Irish band Stiff Little Fingers formed and released a blistering, politically-barbed, howl of a punk record. Their Inflammable Material album exhibited a raw energy and integrity that still resonates to this day.

They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty

Their solutions are our problems
They put up the wall
On each side, time and prime us
Make sure we get fuck all

During the '70s and '80s Belfast was plagued with car bombings and after 6:00pm the central city would be virtually shut down. The only people that ventured downtown were the police, the military, and punks going to the Pound club where SLF would play. Protestant and Catholic kids alike would unite and listen to protest music. Northern Ireland punks mostly rejected the narratives of both sides of the conflict.

They say they're a part of you
And that's not true, you know

In Hopewell Crescent fourteen year old Callum wheelies his bike past the Summer of ‘69 mural which ironically applies the Bryan Adams song to the riots that launched the troubles. The gable art depicts an iconic image of two children, one Protestant and one Catholic, who were friends one day and woke up the next in a bomb-ravaged neighborhood being told they could no longer play together.

Whole generations have grown up knowing nothing but social division. The massive steel and razor wire fences that snake their way through Belfast are indicative of the mistrust that still permeates these neighborhoods. Sectarian walls, it turns out, are much easier to build than tear down.

"They wanted this street, and they didn't get it, and they wrecked it in the process. I love my country, I love my culture, and that wall is stayin' where it is. Amen!" states a defiant loyalist.

Another man provides a more reasoned response "The walls have attracted more trouble than they prevented, they don't really give you the protection you think." 

I'm driven to explore places with troubled histories, I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's their ultimate redemption that makes me feel positive about the world, how humanity can bootstrap back from very dark situations. 

Today, many Northern Ireland communities are attempting to pull themselves away from sectarian conflict. Mural artists are starting to focus on less inflammatory subjects and a few security walls have been dismantled. Although positive steps are being made, they've still got a long road ahead.

"We need to get to a situation where there's no more barriers being built, not only that, the idea of a barrier is considered to be unacceptable."

Visiting a country that's endured such violent partisan division has been an eye opener. Once again I've had the privilege of peering into lives very different to my own, however this time I leave with a sense of unease. The Northern Ireland experience has really underscored the signs currently emerging from my adopted country which appears to be heading full throttle into its own period of "troubles."

Thirty years on it's depressing to see how the rasping cry of a Belfast punk band born in the depths of a civil war has become so relevant to the present situation in the Divided States of America.

Don't believe them
Don't believe them
Question everything you're told

Just take a look around you
At the bitterness and spite
Why can't we take over 
and try to put it right?

Don't believe them
Don't believe them
Don't be bitten twice
You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss, suss
Suss, suspect device

32

The crisis is all around us, and so are the solutions

by Nicky Hager

Three years after first publishing this essay in Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, the problems with news media are just as worrying.

The gap between media and journalism widens. But there is some very good news. The new Labour-led government has committed to doing the single most positive thing that can be done for media in New Zealand: building up Radio New Zealand as a centre of public-interest news.

The essay that follows is about how to do this in a way that really makes a difference ...

Nicky Hager, 2018

–––

The years 2015 and 2016 may be remembered as the point at which New Zealand’s news media ceased to be able to do its job. 

2015 was the year when TV3 slashed serious current affairs and investigative journalism. The same happened at Māori Television: two out of three major TV channels at once, both with a strong smell of political interference. The New Zealand Herald, which until recently had the country’s best array of columnists, merged its news with Newstalk ZB radio, cutting various critical commentators and replacing them on the Herald website with the opinions of talkback hosts. 2016 saw plans for a mega-merger of the two main private newspaper/media companies, a further great, panicked rationalisation. Government-friendly media celebrities increased in dominance. Clickbait was so ubiquitous that it was ceasing to be a pejorative term. 

And somewhere in all this, and similar events before and since, we are no longer getting what we expect and need from news. In the battle against PR people and political impression managers, there aren’t enough journalists and there isn’t enough media space to do the job.

The results are already evident. Despite the best efforts of some fantastic, decent people in the media, many important subjects don’t get discussed and probed. Political events, that have almost certainly been orchestrated, go unanalysed. Ministers grow complacent in the knowledge that, on most issues most of the time, no one will be fact checking their statements or digging much beyond the press release. And every year there is more PR being disseminated as news. 

If the media has too little capacity to dig and scrutinise, too few informed commentators and critics, and not enough healthy space for ideas and debate to be heard, democratic politics does not work properly. It still looks as though there are political clashes, debates and politicians being questioned – and there are some outstanding examples now and then of the media doing well – but more often than not media scrutiny and investigation are inadequate or absent. 

Muddling on is not the answer. The current news media cannot provide the breadth and depth of news required by a reasonably functioning democratic society. The time has arrived for deliberate, dramatic action to build the news media of the future

First, I strongly believe that news has to become primarily a public service, like schools, hospitals and courts. Public funding is the only viable model, and is entirely appropriate since news is a public service. The future requires new and greatly strengthened publicly owned news organisations, working alongside the privately owned ones. This means, in the first phase, building up by something like four times the public spending on news. 

We also need to recognise the continuing importance of mass media. The internet allows for a diversity of commentary and niche subject sites. It has also allowed for the appearance of some specialist news sites. But mass of news media is crucial in itself, to avoid social atomisation and allow us to hear regularly what a variety of people are thinking about and saying. Large public service news media, providing news for public and private outlets, will be vital to maintaining the unifying and democratic role of mass news media. 

But it is a third, less discussed, component of a future media plan that I want to focus on here: protecting news media independence. How do we stop politicians and other powerful interests interfering in news organisations? This question will become especially important in an era when news is more dependent on public funding. 

The year 2015 illustrated what can happen when there are too few protections for news media independence. The cutting of critical journalism at Māori Television (in particular the outstanding Native Affairs programme) appeared to be directly the outcome of government influence. The gutting of investigative journalism and current affairs at TV3 came from senior executives who had friendly relations with the National government and little sympathy for critical journalism. Both private and public news organisations have inadequate defences against this type of interference.

Prime Minister John Key was asked on Newstalk ZB about the closing down of TV3’s Campbell Live: was it bad for democracy to have fewer commercial television programmes holding government to account? Key replied that ‘its role in life isn’t to hold the government to account, it is to entertain its viewers and follow news stories’. He said viewers were more interested in ‘light entertainment’ such as Campbell Live’s 7 p.m. competitor on TVNZ, Seven Sharp

Another long-term example of political and commercial interference in news is Television New Zealand. TVNZ has the potential to be the largest and most important source of public interest news and current affairs in the country. But some particularly negative developments in New Zealand news have occurred there. 

From 1989 to 2004, Paul Holmes fronted the flagship Holmes programme, which imported talkback-style bigotry and right-wing populism to prime-time television. The negative influence of this, featured on the publicly owned channel (as part of a wider programme of commercialisation), spread outwards to other news media. It established the role of celebrity media personality, friend of politicians and big business. 

Later, TVNZ gave Seven Sharp, the successor to Holmes, to an even more negative and cynical celebrity announcer, Mike Hosking. (TV3 followed by giving prominence to a similar announcer, Paul Henry.) 

The changes at TVNZ were shaped by a complex combination of government policies, personalities and commercial and political pressures. But one stark part of the picture is the influence of the TVNZ board members, who are appointed under the Broadcasting Act by two government ministers: of broadcasting and of finance. 

The TVNZ board epitomises the risks of external influence. Although it is the constitutional responsibility of ministers to appoint people representing a wide cross-section of the public to run an important public organisation like TVNZ, this does not always happen. Ministers tend to have a winner-takes-all approach to their ministerial power, putting their own preferences ahead of their wider responsibilities. 

There are a number of aspects to political influence. The first one is the lack of any requirement for non-partisan board appointments. A Labour-led government makes Labour-friendly appointments and a National-led government appoints National-friendly members. There is a more or less complete board change whenever the government changes. For instance, the 1999–2008 Labour-led government appointed environmentalist Rob Fenwick and the public intellectual and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University, Bryan Gould. When National was elected to government in 2008, it began replacing the Labour-appointed board with very different people. 

Some of the post-2008 board members are unsurprising: people from careers in advertising, sport and media organisation management. The two National government-era board members most concerned about news itself were Richard Long and Barrie Saunders. It is hard to imagine two men more hostile to critical, probing journalism. 

Barrie Saunders is a long-term spin doctor and political lobbyist for big corporates. He worked for the Business Roundtable from 1990 to 1998, during a period when the group aggressively opposed any journalists and news organisations that wrote critically about the Roundtable’s far right social and economic policies. 

Since then his lobby firm Saunders Unsworth has defeated government climate change initiatives on behalf of the biggest climate polluters and pushed through direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising in New Zealand (the only country besides the US not to ban this practice). In 2011 he told the Sunday Star-Times that journalists, the medical profession and the medical academics were ‘negative’ about such advertising and boasted that his firm had pushed this model through on behalf of its clients.[i] 

As he told the paper, ‘Lobbying is good for democracy . . . It reduces transaction costs to the government’. In other words, the government didn’t need to waste time dealing with the messy breadth of opinions and needs in society and could work things out quietly with lobbyists like himself. 

Richard Long has also been a long-term friend of the powerful, from inside and outside the media. Colleagues recall that when he became editor of the Dominion in the early 1990s, he sent his staff a list of people who were no longer to be quoted in the newspaper. They included a range of well-known critical voices on public issues. 

Long’s attitude to politics and media was seen most clearly when he left the Dominion and became the chief of staff for the National Party leader Don Brash in 2003–2005. There he oversaw media management for Brash, planning the daily ‘lines’ he would use to evade journalists and spin the news. For instance, Long and his staff penned all the untruthful lines about National’s secret collaboration with the Exclusive Brethren church, which had paid for a million dollars of anonymous attack advertising against the Labour and Green parties during the 2005 election. Long and his team prepared a series of secret internal media scripts for Brash. Here is just one example: 

Q. Did anyone in the National Party have any knowledge of these pamphlets? 

A. Well, I can’t speak for the tens of thousands of party members all around the country but I can assure you that the party’s governing body had absolutely no knowledge of the material you describe, and neither did the leader or any other member of the caucus.[ii] 

Long planned for Brash to feign irritation if journalists kept pressing him about the Brethren – ‘time to get mildly irritated’, his media notes said, then ‘If it continues, [get] even more irritable’. Brash did exactly as he was told to avoid further questioning. Documents showing Long’s media tactics were leaked and became part of my book, The Hollow Men. The prepared lines had been untrue and Brash was forced to resign the day the book was published. 

Having two such people on the board of public television is like having tax haven lawyers on the board of Inland Revenue. They cannot influence decisions about individual news stories, but they can help to create a culture, structures and priorities that fostered a less public kind of news organisation. 

In April 2014 the TVNZ board sent its shareholding National government ministers a statement of intent outlining the ‘scope of functions and intended operations of TVNZ’ until 2018. This list is worth repeating: 

• commissioning, production, purchasing and archiving of video content 

• provision of television production facilities 

• programming television channels and related marketing services to commercial and non-commercial partners 

• provision of advertising and sponsorship services 

• broadcasting free-to-air and pay television channels 

• provision of online services 

• provision of services to the broadcast industry 

• provision of audio-visual footage, programming, video and DVD rights 

• other things as determined by the board. 

Missing from this list, of course, is any mention of news and current affairs. There’s nothing about acting as a fourth estate or holding governments accountable. 

There are only two mentions of news in the document. The first notes that local content, including news and current affairs, ‘is the most expensive to produce’. Later it says the company should ‘drive’ flagship news and current affairs programmes ‘to increase audience share and advertising revenue’, including online. That’s it. 

The TVNZ annual report that year, with a grinning Mike Hosking on the cover, said, ‘Never before has so much television been watched. . . . At TVNZ we’re focused on maximising our share of TV audiences.’ In this world view, TVNZ is a business. News is a source of ratings, advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

Elsewhere TVNZ has stated that ‘The principle of editorial independence recognises the importance of isolating control of editorial content from commercial and political influence.’[iii] It says this principle is reflected in the 2003 Television New Zealand Act. But this is a minimalist view of media independence. The relevant section of the TVNZ legislation says that cabinet ministers cannot direct the gathering or presentation of news. This is important but far from being enough. If Long and Saunders have helped to determine the culture and priorities of the news departments, there is no need for such individuals to interfere in individual news decisions. The damage is already done. 

Up until now, the maintenance of news media independence has largely been informal. It has relied on having enough individuals at all levels of the media with a personal and professional sense of responsibility for preserving the fourth estate’s role in society: stroppy editors and reporters who have stood up to pressures; owners who have been proud of their social role. 

But commercialisation, corporatisation and aggregation under foreign owners have created news-entertainment businesses run by managers. Managers measure the world in ratings figures and revenue, not the social value of an informed society and holding people in positions of power to account. The structural and cultural changes inside news organisations explain much of the current decline in quality and independence. 

The final issue concerns the present administration’s apparent feeling of entitlement to not only enjoy the power of government, but also to use whatever means it can get away with to shut down other voices and influences. One aspect of this is the calculated attack politics seen in my 2014 book Dirty Politics. There also appears to be a conscious effort by some senior ministers to shut down critical media voices and boost supportive ones. This is another source of reduced media independence in New Zealand. 

For all these reasons, it is no longer possible to take news media independence for granted. It has been getting worse and informal systems have been inadequate. Media independence has emerged as an urgent issue for protecting and strengthening future news services in New Zealand. 

Improving the independence of private news organisations or embedding protections in a way that makes them secure is not easy. One useful step would be stronger media standards organisations and tougher standards, backed by law, not just voluntary codes. But that regulates only the news that is done; standards have little effect on the news that is cut or trivialised. 

However, much can be done to improve the independence of public news media, the mainstay of future public-interest journalism. There are two parts to this: protecting the independence of the news organisations and protecting their funding. 

A good starting point for future public service media is the Radio New Zealand legislation. Section 7 directs that RNZ provide an independent broadcasting service with ‘comprehensive, independent, impartial, and balanced national news services and current affairs, including items with a regional perspective’. But, like TVNZ, the RNZ board is appointed by the shareholding government ministers and its budget is determined by them. It is worthwhile looking outside the media for models of more independent public institutions. 

Various organisations play a similar role in society to that of a news organisation. They include the Ombudsman, Auditor-General, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, each of whom has formal powers for gathering information and serves as a watchdog on behalf of the public, scrutinising the actions of people and organisations in positions of authority. 

The independence of these organisations is strengthened by the requirement that their senior officers are appointed by the entire parliament, not just ministers in the government coalition. These officers are selected by the Officers of Parliament Committee, which comprises representatives from all political parties. In most cases its decisions must be unanimous. This would be a sound arrangement for choosing the senior decision makers in future public news organisations. 

The law court system, another pillar of a civilised society, is also a useful model. They have strong traditions of institutional independence. The courts largely run themselves and avoid interference from the government and government departments. Judges are protected from political and other influences. 

Such an approach will require a change of thinking about news media, to recognise that they are public-interest institutions requiring an independent status and protections. Remaining is the difficult question of how to prevent government funding decisions being used to undermine the independence of news organisations. Squeezing or cutting funding, or the threat of this, is a powerful way for governments to punish, reward or otherwise influence publicly funded news. The harm can also be done simply by neglect and lack of interest in news and allowing commercial pressures to rule. 

The goal, for crucial institutions such as the Ombudsman, which recently faced an underfunding crisis, and public news media, should be to insulate their funding from political fluctuations. This is difficult because governments claim a right to decide public spending decisions. Long-term funding must be free from political interference. A possible precedent for this is the funding of parliament, where representatives from all parties, not just the government, make funding decisions. Increased news collaboration between RNZ and TVNZ will also help build a stronger base. 

The current crisis in news media can help too, impelling decision makers to get on with building the new system. Independence is only part of what is needed to build strong, lasting news media in New Zealand. Legal and organisational structures that allow editorial independence and security of funding need to go hand in hand with creating the public-focused, mass media of the future. But the independence is vital. Without it the rest will be undermined or will not last.

–––

Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand can still be purchased in the original print, and in e-book form.



[i] Adam Dudding, “Who’s Pulling the Strings?” Sunday-Star Times, July 17, 2011. 

[ii] Nicky Hager, The Hollow Men (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2006), 34. 

[iii] Television New Zealand, TVNZ Annual Report FY2012 (2012), 69