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.