Public Broadcasting and Media

Early in 2017 a People’s Commission toured New Zealand seeking views on the future of public broadcasting and media. It visited six cities seeking the views of the public and media experts in a series of workshops. The project’s website is http://www.makeourmediabetter.org.nz Below is my submission to the Auckland workshop, in which I answer the five questions posed by the commission…and suggest a sixth.

Submission to the People’s Commission into Public Broadcasting and Media

Auckland Workshop 26 March 2017

 The Questions:

 

1.

How do Kiwis want media delivered today?

2.

What international models could we learn from?

 

3.

What content do New Zealanders most want and need?

4.

Who should make the decisions about our media?

5.

How do we fund public broadcasting and media? And should we?

 

The Answers:

 

  1. Do not become bogged down in delivery technology. The Web is less than three decades old, smartphone introduced around 2000, and the iPad was launched 2010. Each decade there has been a paradigm shift and the next anticipated leap forward – into quantum technology – will change things in ways we cannot imagine. We know that there is a strong shift toward mobile Frankly, you cannot predict what will happen in the relatively short term, let alone the medium to long term. So, don’t try. Accept that delivery systems are dynamic and that users will determine the mode, frequency and source of content delivery. Concentrate on what is being delivered and structures with the flexibility needed to produce it.
  2. The panellists are already aware that the current business models are failing:
  • Mediaworks’ trading income was down 42.3% in 2015 (latest figures)
  • Fairfax NZ ‘s revenue was down 9% in the six months to December 2016.
  • NZME’s revenue in the year to December was down 4.9%
  • TVNZ advertising revenue in the six months to December was down 5.1%
  • Radio NZ’s purchasing power declined 13.6% since 2008 (CPI)

I am a strong proponent of trusteeship as a sustainable business structure – altruistically based but committed to efficient business practices – and commend it as a structure worthy of your consideration. My arguments are set out in Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and white knights (London, Palgrave 2014) which contains case studies that examine the Scott Trust (Guardian), The Irish Times Trust and the Poynter Institute (Tampa Bay Times), as well as family trusts such as the Sulzbergers (New York Times), Harmsworths (Daily Mail) and Grahams (former owners of the Washington Post). I also examine the BBC Trust. It has since become the victim of political interference but this should not be seen as a failing of the trust model itself. The BBC is an imperfect hybrid. I believe strongly that formalised trusteeship is a way in which the values of public service can be protected. It is a model that could, for example, be applied to a public/private partnership that is one of the future structures that the commission should consider. In the book I also address tax structures and commend to the panel the U.S. low-profit, limited liability company structure (L3C) used in some states to provide special tax status for public good enterprises such as rest homes. There is pressure for it to be extended to public interest journalism.

3. Your third question should be altered to change the emphasis – what do New Zealanders most need, before what they may most want. The role that digital analytics is now playing, in place of the traditional news values of civic journalism, has given entertaining and sometimes prurient content a far higher priority than it deserves. Prioritising “what the audience wants” has seen entire areas of civic engagement disappear from news media. Limited resources – and the imminent cuts to TVNZ’s staff (particularly in Wellington) is the latest iteration of the ongoing malady – have played a significant role in this shift of emphasis: “We only have enough people to cover what the audience wants”. Academics Michael Gurevitch and Jay Blumler are unequivocal in their determination that democracy is “a highly exacting creed in its expectations of mass media” [1] but New Zealand media are increasingly failing to fill the required spectrum for the reasons I have outlined. If they cannot meet their democratic obligations separately then perhaps they should consider doing it collectively. I advocate pooling their resources to create the sort of cooperative exchange that was provided by the New Zealand Press Association before the extraordinarily short-sighted actions of its newspaper shareholders saw it closed.  Radio New Zealand already distributes some of its content to other media but I suggest it should become the central component of a new service. Its function should be to provide what Alex Jones calls “the iron core of information that is at the centre of a functioning democracy”[2] and to coordinate the collection and dissemination of public service content among media outlets. Media organisations must accept that the days of competing over core news content are long gone and also accept and financially back an expanded role for RNZ. It is time, too, for news media to realise that their reputation has been damaged by pandering to public demands to be entertained. Only 23% of New Zealanders trust journalists while 93% trust firefights and ambulance officers.[3] If news media are to have a future in an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’, it will be by becoming the trusted source for information in a world awash with ‘sources’. Part of the process of restoring that trust will be the provision of public service journalism and RNZ must be at the centre of that effort.[4] I ask the commission to urge all sections of the news media to begin the process of restoration.

4. I make no apology for my next statement: It is extremely unfortunate that the general public is now responsible for making decisions about our media. The public concentrates on its own immediate desires and its appetite for news has become too determined by the desire to be entertained – be it show business or the macabre spectacle of violent crime. In turn, newsrooms have become slave to Chartbeat and other platforms that measure real-time ‘performance’ of every story. RNZ, to a degree, stands apart from this commercial drive but it, too, can be seduced by analytics. It is time for newsrooms to reclaim the news and to apply the principles of good journalism and democratic/civic values in the choice of content. Lord Reith’s philosophy for the BBC – to inform, educate and entertain (in that order) – is now viewed as paternalistic. However, perhaps we have turned full circle and news media must tell the public what it needs to know if they are to regain public trust. This answer has, however, perhaps been a misappropriation of the question because I suspect it is aimed at broader issues of governance. So let me address that issue.The present government has shown no desire to alter systems that have outlived their time. There is an urgent need for a single regulatory body, independent of both government and those organisations over which it rules. The proposals of the New Zealand Law Commission, set out in its 2011 report The News Media Meets ‘New Media’, provide a useful reference. There is a further need, however, and that relates to an urgent requirement to take the funding of public service media out of the direct control of government. The present government, driven by an ideology opposed to PSB, has shown itself to be a poor custodian. If the suggestions made in the next section are acted upon, an independent funding body should be a core requirement. It may be an expanded role for NZ on Air or the creation of a new organisation mandated by government. In either case, it should be beyond the budgetary reach of government (which is clearly not the case in relation  to annual appropriations for Radio New Zealand).

5. Direct funding of public service media from the public purse, and subject to the political whims of government, is a flawed model that needs no further evidence than eight years of frozen RNZ budgets. There have been several suggestions for the supplementing of direct government funding. Dr Peter Thompson’s suggestion of an impost on all advertising to support public service broadcasting is an idea that has considerable merit. However, I believe that in addition to a 1% or 2% levy of all advertisers, the burden should fall more heavily on those who have exploited New Zealand news content to build lucrative advertising businesses – Facebook, Google and other forms of social media. There is pressure on government to make such organisations pay taxes that they currently avoid. That money should be re-distributed to support the provision of public service journalism. This would not, however, be an alternative to guarantees of funding from the public purse. Public funding represents one of government’s necessary commitments to the furthering of democracy and civic health. It should underwrite a base amount and make up any shortfall in funding from redistributed tax and advertising levies. Distribution should be the responsibility of an independent body governed by a mix of industry and public appointees (weighted in favour of the public). A principal call on its finances would be to fund RNZ, Maori Television and ethnic/community media. It may also be the conduit through which a public interest news service and public interest content by other media could be funded (as is currently the case with NZ on Air). Earlier I raised the possibility of public/private partnerships. This submission is too brief to fully explore that possibility but it is one I encourage the panel to consider. PPPs may be structured to allow other media to have equity stakes in an expanded news service based on RNZ. It is also a means by which public-spirited members of the public could directly support public service media. It is essential, however, that this be based on a sustainable model such as an altruistic trust or L3

6. The commission does not pose a question on how can New Zealanders be encouraged to engage with public service media. I urge it to consider a recommendation, in line with that of the Civics and Media Project[5], that the teaching of civics in New Zealand primary and secondary schools be given a significantly higher priority that it currently enjoys. The three main conclusions from the project were:

  • Civics education needs to be strengthened in schools and in tertiary institutions so that every young individual considers social problems to be at least partly their own, and is equipped with sufficient critical thinking skills. This aligns with the Constitutional Advisory Panel’s report (November 2013), which recommends that the Government ‘develops a national strategy for civics and citizenship education in schools and in the community’ and that ‘the implementation of the strategy could include the coordination of education activities; resource development, including resources for Māori medium schools; and professional development for teachers and the media’.
  • Support for public interest journalism, through enabling policies and funding from both the public purse and effective crowdfunding initiatives, is required to ensure we continue to have a strong, independent media industry that covers the big issues affecting society.
  • Resources and initiatives aimed at engaging adult New Zealanders in both elections and non-political community initiatives need to be better supported and promoted.

Footnotes:

[1] Gurevitch & Blumler, Political Communication Systems and Democratic Values (1990)

[2] Alex S. Jones Losing the News (2009)

[3] Research NZ 2015

[4] To fulfil that role, however, it must be reconstituted as something more than a state-owned broadcaster. It must become a multimedia content engine feeding a network of delivery systems.

[5] http://civicsandmediaprojectnz.org

 

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