In April 2020, Broadcasting, Communications and Media Minister Kris Faafoi announced a $50 million support package for media struggling because of the Covid pandemic. For many government critics, this “bail-out” is incontrovertible proof that the New Zealand media has been “bought and paid for”, and explains why, in their estimation, “mainstream” outlets are little more than propagandists for Jacinda Ardern.
While it’s unsurprising such beliefs have taken hold on the far-right, for whom the idea of entrenched left-wing media bias has long been an article of faith, I’m hearing them more and more from otherwise fairly moderate people. If I had to guess in the absence of specific polling on the question, the idea of a quid pro quo between the Government and media, lubricated by Covid cash, is held to be true by a greater proportion of the electorate than currently plan to vote for the National Party.
In light of this, some people working in the media have told me they now believe it was a mistake to take the Covid money, however precarious things were at the time. Whatever the short-term benefits, it wasn’t worth the cost in the loss in terms of public trust in our media institutions.
Maybe so, but I’m not sure. I suspect this episode didn’t so much exacerbate public mistrust of media as reveal it. After all, in order to embrace the quid pro quo theory, you must first believe the following: the Government used Covid relief funds to enforce favourable media coverage; that media organisations agreed to those terms; and that newsrooms happily went along without a single journalist or industry insider sounding the alarm.
None of this is remotely plausible. Even if the Government were craven enough to attempt such arm-twisting (they are not), and even if media bosses were unethical enough to succumb to it (which they aren’t), there is no way known they could get every single reporter in the country to stay quiet on the subject for a single news cycle, let alone 18 months. This is where most conspiracy theories fall down: they rely on silent complicity in the face of nefarious acts, ignoring or oblivious to the reality that everything is leaked all the time – especially nefariousness.
Complaints about media bias are almost always overblown, and more often than not involve classic projection, saying more about the critic’s political bent than the outlet they’re lambasting. They can also arise from a lack of understanding about how the media functions.
I’m often scolded, for example, for not demonstrating sufficient “balance” in my columns, and for being a “terrible reporter”. When I point out I’m an opinion writer and in no way a journalist, it invariably falls on deaf ears. Mere facts, I’ve come to learn, cannot hope to puncture narrative.
With all of this as background noise, Faafoi is preparing to announce a decision on major reforms to broadcasting in the New Year. Tracey Martin, chair of the Stronger Public Media Governance Group, has confirmed the group has finished its work and sent a final business case with a preferred option to the Beehive. Among many other changes, it is believed Faafoi will propose a merger between Radio NZ and TVNZ.
Such a merger has long made sense, but my hope is that the reforms amount to far more than corporate restructuring.
Here are four things I’m looking for in the reform package.
First, a clear commitment that the agency will fund robust news reporting, as well as investigative journalism. (If you think public broadcasters are too compromised to hold governments to account, take a look at the ABC in Australia or the BBC, both of which terrify their politicians in ways commercial operators could only dream of.)
As co-host, along with Tau Henare and Mihingarangi Forbes, of an RNZ show with a focus on Māori issues (Talking Politics), I’m bound to declare an interest here, but I’d like to see support for a diversification of voices. Critically, this should be accompanied by secure, long-term funding arrangements. As with the arts sector in Aotearoa, the current ad hoc, grants-based funding model brings about great uncertainty, leaving content producers in a constant scramble for scarce resources.
Third, I hope the plan lays out a vision for significantly bolstering local news, which is little more than a smouldering crater after its virtual annihilation by the Internet.
Finally, a plan for New Zealand to take fuller advantage of the global streaming revolution, creating a pipeline for content creators to produce shows and films for here and abroad. Given our track record in film and television, there’s no reason we can’t match the success of Scandinavian countries on this front, especially when (in theory at least) our product doesn’t require subtitles in the English-speaking world.
I look forward to seeing the scope and detail of the Government’s vision on broadcasting and hold out hope it will involve far more than shuffling the organisational chart.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.
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