Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivered a budget with big numbers this afternoon but, for Covid-affected media organisations seeking assistance, it was decidedly small on detail about what would be spend to help them and where.
Last month, when Communications Minister Kris Faafoi announced a $50 million media assistance package overwhelmingly aimed at broadcasters, the prospect of a second package in the budget was held out to the industry.
“I want to be very clear,” he said, “that this first phase of support alone will not be sufficient to see the sector through a prolonged period of restrictions and reduced advertising. A second package of support is being developed and will be submitted for the COVID-19 budget discussions in May.”
It may, indeed, have been submitted but there was no indication today what that ‘second package of support’ might be. This was all the finance minister said in his Budget speech on the topic: “Media industry assistance is being developed over coming months”. And, as I write this, I am still waiting for any amplification from Kris Faafoi.
The 2020-21 Appropriations for Vote Arts, Culture & Heritage contain a line item “Sustaining crucial public media platforms” that is worth $6.2 million but the overall vote is down $10 million on this year. That is hardly an indication that the coffers will be flung open to prop up commercial media organisations whose cashflow was decimated during the lockdown.
The Estimates of Expenditure are a byzantine piece of fiscal magic that can hide a fantastic range of spending readily identifiable to ministries and their ministers but to few others. So it would be unfair to say at this stage that private sector media have been left out in the cold. It would be fair, however, to say that the Budget has given them little immediate comfort.
What, for example, is a ‘crucial public media platform’? Is it a state-owned enterprise like RNZ or Television New Zealand? Is it a community-based entity like iwi radio? Is it that part of a private media organisation that serves a demonstrable public purpose – such as its Parliamentary Press Gallery office? Or is it a recognition that a news media organisation in its entirety provides a public good? Whatever it means, $6.2 million spread across an industry does not go far.
A plea by magazine publishers for relief from large annual rises in postal charges on their subscribed copies may have been met in the Budget…or not. A $150 million equity injection and $130 million funding for New Zealand Post “to avoid significant cuts to services and workforce and big price increases to users” may be helpful but how helpful to magazine publishers remains to be seen.
Grant Robertson’s persuasive speech in the House recognised the urgency facing many businesses and individuals due to the global pandemic and many of its measures were aimed at providing urgent assistance. There was no such sense of urgency when it came to the media industry. Worse, the finance minister’s statement that assistance ‘will be developed over coming months’ gave the impression that the ‘second package submitted for the Covid-19 budget discussions’ was far from a done deal.
There are immediate needs within media organisations large and small. Some of those may be met by the assistance packages available to businesses in general. However, for commercial media, a prolonged period of low economic activity spells significant problems and their forecasts do not look good.
A greater sense of urgency needs to permeate the Beehive’s thinking on the industry.
It is hampered, however, by the widely accepted belief that it is not the role of government to prop up failing businesses. It may resolve that inner conflict if it accepts that, in order to preserve the journalism that is vital in a functioning democracy, it may need to buy time for the organisations that employ a majority of those journalists. So, not a bail out so much as flotation bags to stop them sinking before permanent fixes can be made. And that is where Grant Robertson gave a useful pointer in his Budget speech.
For some weeks on this website and elsewhere, I have advocated the convening of a Bretton Woods #2 conference to reshape New Zealand media structures and management that are no longer fit for purpose. At the end of his speech today, the finance minister said: “There are few times in your life when you have the privilege of hitting the reset button”.
If the government can buy time to convene (but not dictate to) Bretton Woods #2 before our media start to crumble under the economic stresses of coronavirus, we just might be able to push the reset button on New Zealand journalism.