Fourth Estate for a price?

There is an elephant in the room right now for the media and I’m not sure they want to talk about it. They have just received $55 million towards ‘sustainable public interest journalism’.

There is an elephant in the room right now for the media and I’m not sure they want to talk about it. They have just received $55 million towards ‘sustainable public interest journalism’. This is in addition to the extra $50+million in different pots received last year during the pandemic for Government contracts and transmission fees as well as of course the ongoing access to increased crown funding already in place prior to the pandemic from both National and Labour Governments towards NZ on Air, RNZ and other community broadcasting and media initiatives.  This is putting aside normal COVID-19 relief options to businesses at large, additional funding for the screen sector which will inevitably cross over to wider media organisations as well as countless other sources of opportunity to take a turn at the chisel hacking into new streams of Crown Revenue as opposed to seeking that revenue from audiences.

The clarion call sounds straight forward enough. Digital media (whatever this means in 2021) is taking away audiences and reducing revenue leaving media organisations without the means to carry on without Government intervention. Those from ‘Private media’ (whatever this means in 2021) claim they don’t get fair standing compared to that RNZ as a non-commercial state broadcaster and TVNZ, as a Crown-owned entity can achieve and I think they do have a fair point particularly when RNZ has been stepping into media spaces some would see as outside it’s remit even a decade ago and TVNZ has an, at best, ambiguous justification for continuing in its current state being owned by the Crown. We know the Minister is working on an RNZ/TVNZ merger which is of course going to end in tears, a lot of wasted money and no real solution for the question of what public broadcasting and media should look like in Aotearoa and that is just a small part of the landscape.

National at the 2020 election proposed to start afresh on a comprehensive review of our media sector, something that in the Ministers own briefing papers barely got a paragraph of mention, astonishing considering it was a keystone of their Broadcasting policy during the last Parliament and several more reviews, working groups and Ministerial Advisory panels around this sector have since been appointed and I am sure they are all talking across each other and not going anywhere.

I am also sure this is all happening on your tax dollars.

I’m actively beginning my own review of the media sector this year and hoping to get to communities like yours soon to talk face to face with everyone from industry stakeholders to ordinary kiwis about how they think our sector should operate because as much ‘fun’ as it can be talked about the problems in our public and private media sectors we also need to be aware there is so much potential, expertise and vision there too. Our Media agencies are winning awards globally in both private and public media spheres and this should not be discounted. We have to uplift and sharpen those talents and ensure if your tax dollars are used, that they are used competently, to provide the services all New Zealanders expect.

We also need to have a frank discussion about media independence. When too many people talk about ‘Red Radio’ on one side, and wanting to see key media and public figures de-platformed in private media on the other, we are at an impasse as New Zealanders decide on what we agree should be allowed ‘on the air’ and actually whether we want it taxpayer funded. We are actually at an impasse on what we consider ‘public interest’. A lot of the grievances recently are that our public media isn’t listening to all public voices, that it is leaning in one political direction and it’s not just RNZ. Concerns are being raised that NZ on Air isn’t funding or interested in public interest media from all partisan spheres. I raised these concerns directly with their CEO and we had a good and constructive conversation. I honestly don’t think the issue necessarily lies with NZ on Air itself. Coming away from that meeting, it feels more systematic as to whether those who NZ on Air work with are willing to raise those public voices and indeed whether those voices want to access the large pots of taxpayer dollars that both National-led and Labour Governments alike have provided to support diverse kiwi content from music to script to factual stories and more. What doesn’t help this situation is the effective politicisation of the NZ on Air Board and for that matter other Public Media Agencies.

Questions have been raised about the political activities of members of the board of NZ on Air and other media entities and these are fair questions when dealing with crown entities and Ministerial discretion exists for their appointment. It becomes even more disquieting when those appointed have a Governance role in the agencies that ultimately are funded to tell our stories and evaluate the news, let alone write it. The issue isn’t isolated either to Governance roles, the issue has shown in recent years also in senior executive roles or prominent media figures (I disclose in a past life some kind-hearted soul may have considered me in this category) seeking high office or positions of political influence. Earlier this week I read about David Farrar’s concept for an independent commission and consultation on appointing public broadcasting leadership in consultation with the opposition, I’m unsure if this is the best approach as it would lead to us all paying for yet another regulatory authority in all likelihood with the same result but I’m open to the conversation. When I say National wants that comprehensive all-encompassing media review we mean it, no holds barred.

So the questions really I want to put to you are will the $55million being offered for public interest journalism be ring-fenced from some, will there be interference or even the inference of interference like we saw in the last Parliament; and, when they say [The fund] will be open to all media entities; from large media organisations through to small, local entities, Māori, Pacific and ethnic media do they mean it and how fairly will it be given. Is this and the $50million during the Pandemic enough to make any media agency second-guess themselves before committing to a story, is this enough to scuttle or even delay through backchannels or in-house bureaucratic processes a story or a project that could impact the hand that feeds or perhaps the future of the pot of gold itself. I don’t like putting these questions and I am reluctant to do so because I do believe in the core good of the concept of an independent value for money crown supported public interest media. The reason I’m sharing this opinion is because I’m not hearing these questions being raised from the media itself.

I wonder if they’ll have the strength to ask them themselves, I’m keen to hear the answers.

Naku noa na