A rodent’s rear

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

The structure of our legacy news media will pre-occupy New Zealand journalists and those close to the industry in coming months, but the general public will not (to put it crudely) give a rodent’s rear.

Ownership of the country’s largest privately-owned media companies is already in play and we will know within weeks whether the Labour-led government will proceed along a path that would see public-owned Television New Zealand Radio New Zealand absorbed by a new entity.

News media resourcing could also be reshaped in parallel developments that could see NZ on Air funding increased and applied beyond electronic delivery systems – to the point where it may need a name change.

All of this suggests that 2020 will be a watershed year for the structural forms in which our journalists work and through which they hold power to account, speak truth to power, or (to again put it crudely) keep the bastards honest.

Or not.

  • There are no guarantees that a new owner of TV3 wouldn’t simply opt for a rejig of the half-hour bread-and-butter news package it sells to Prime and shelve The Project and The AM Show.
  • There are no guarantees that an impatient Nine Network will not sell Stuff to interests that will ruthlessly cull regional titles, shut Sunday News, and regard the excellent Stuff Circuit investigative team as an unnecessary expense.
  • There are no guarantees that a revived bid to merge Stuff and NZME will maintain anything approaching masthead editorial independence and diversity beyond the honeymoon. The wholesale page sharing that already characterises the Stuff titles could extend across an enlarged group, led perhaps by New Zealand Herald ‘Loved by everyone’ death-knock headlines. And would New Zealand need three Sunday newspapers when one would do?
  • There are no guarantees that the private equity company sniffing around the Australasian assets of Bauer Media would maintain its full stable of New Zealand magazines and locally generated content that reflects our society. Ownership of magazines on both sides of the Tasman could lead to an eastward tsunami of shared content – something that was avoided under the Sydney-based leadership of Paul Dykzeul and his successor Brendon Hill.
  • There are no guarantees that a new public media entity would not become mired in political in-fighting that created an unworkable structure, or delayed implementation until its individual components were significantly weakened.

However, before I send you into a paroxysm of negativity, let’s concede that it is by no means certain that all – or any – of these dire situations will arise. Journalists – and others who see the importance of impartial quality journalism in a democracy – will work hard to ensure the outcome for each media organisation is a positive one that contributes to its survival and perhaps even growth.

There are many aspects of New Zealand news media of which we can be proud, and which point to the benefits that accrue from the hard work of journalists. Investigative journalism has arguably never been more prolific, enhanced by the multimedia tools that media convergence has created.

Listed company status is not the end of the road. There are structural forms that can be used to replace the sharemarket investor model that is nearing the end of its useful life in the sector. Self-sustaining not-for-profit, low-profit social enterprise, and philanthropic ownership models are spreading overseas and have appeared here in digital start-ups.

The restructuring of public-owned media is only in its first phase and faces a rigorous testing process that should ensure it is fit for purpose, so long as politics do not get in  the way (Disclosure: I was an advisor to the Ministry of Culture & Heritage during that first stage).

And the multi-million-dollar bag of loot that social media multinationals extract on the back of misappropriated news content is being targeted in other jurisdictions. So, why not here? Our media companies would benefit hugely from a hefty royalty on that content.

There are, therefore, plenty of pluses that can be used to guide the future of much-needed news media.

However, can journalists rely on a supportive and clamorous public to support them in their desire to ensure the structural changes to our media are the right ones?

The simple answer is: No.

Not since the 1960s has the New Zealand public shown widespread concern for the protection of our media assets. Ironically, that concern – and the passage of the News Media Ownership Act to stop Lord Thompson buying the Dominion – allowed the back-door entry of Rupert Murdoch. Its later repeal allowed him to be joined by American telcos, Canadian empire builders, Irish adventurers, German heiresses, and Australian asset managers.

There was some bleating from the provinces when regional titles were absorbed by metro newspaper owners in the 70s and 80s but to no good effect. We saw no outpouring of public opposition when TV3 was sold overseas to CanWest. The public welcomed former rugby poster boy Tony O’Reilly when he ‘rescued’ New Zealand Herald publisher Wilson & Horton from  the clutches of Brierley Investments. The arrival of Bell South was seen as a technological plus for Sky TV. Bauer’s purchase of the majority of the country’s consumer periodicals went almost unnoticed and, after all, weren’t these Germans experts in magazine publishing? And when international players decided to call it a day, offshore asset managers were ready to step in to hoover up shares under the radar.

A decade ago, I wrote a book called Word War (on the demise of newspaper cooperation in the New Zealand Press Association) in which I used the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, an international yardstick on company mergers. It showed that by 2005 New Zealand media ownership was highly concentrated (in fact it was 2.4 times higher than the HHI ‘highly concentrated’ threshold) and since then it got worse. The fact that we are one of the most concentrated and foreign-owned media markets in the world does not seem to matter to the general public. Never mind, it gave me the title for a later book – Complacent Nation.

Public complacency means media-related issues do not rank highly among politicians. To put it bluntly, there are no votes in it. As a result, for example, we have seen a cartload of reviews and recommendations on media convergence and regulation ignored by government.

But why should the media take public attitudes lying down? They see themselves as having the power to sway public opinion and the challenges they face at the start of a new decade mean they have to start swaying.

Individually, groups have made some effort to promote their journalism – witness Stuff’s becausejournalism campaign, the New Zealand Herald’s aspirational television commercials, and the television networks’ on-screen and billboard promotion of their key news staff.

Unfortunately, it not enough.

There is a useful analogy I used to use with my university classes. I referred to throw-weight or the weight of the payload a missile can carry. There is no point building a warhead if you don’t have the thrust to carry it the full distance.

That, I’m afraid, is the fate of such campaigns. Individually, their missiles are only large enough to carry low-impact warheads.

If the voices of journalists, industry leaders, and public-spirited pressure groups are to be heard loud enough to make the public – and, hence, politicians – pay attention, they must shout in unison.

It is time to set aside whatever differences or competitive instincts they have and start a joint rocket project ­– a missile and warhead powerful enough to ignite public opinion on the need to preserve professional journalism and its delivery systems. They must enlist the general public to push government for ‘environmental’ changes that will help to sustain them. And, of course, they must encourage the public to value their work.

Complacent Nation ended by recalling Kris Kristofferson’s lyrics in the song Me and Bobby McGee. Remember the lines?

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

            And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but its free

He was referring to the bittersweet feeling after his lover has left him, admitting he would trade anything to have her back.

Media do not need to persuade the public to fall in love with them. However, they do need to mount a compelling argument that, like Bobby McGee, journalists are the people who keep you from the cold and who you’ll miss when you let them slip away.

 

A bouquet: To racing journalist Michael Guerin for regularly putting a human face on the racing industry and expertly describing the drama of turf action.

A brickbat: To Facebook for once again following the dollars by refusing to fact-check political advertising.

One thought on “A rodent’s rear

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.