Last Friday was International Press Freedom Day. To mark the occasion, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance which represents journalists in New Zealand and Australia, produced a publication on media freedom. I was asked to submit a contribution. Here it is:
The fundamental role of the news media is simply to report fair and balanced information to citizens. In doing so the news media acts as a ‘watchdog’ or power check, protecting the rights and interests of citizens. While factors such as entertainment undeniably hold some importance to the news media, it is the watchdog function of the news media that is fundamental to the workings of a democracy.
The democratic functions of the media to educate and inform citizens, and to act as a power check to the state has been overridden by content that is focussed on producing profit.
Democratic functions have therefore fallen on the shoulders of public service broadcasters.
In New Zealand, a shrinking media environment, under-resourced watchdogs such as the Ombudsman, the Office of the Auditor General and the Privacy Commission and an unrelenting move away from the notion of public media to commercial media in the broadcasting environment has eroded our ability to uphold these fundamental principles.
The ability of the print media to withstand the pressure of the online environment shows the power of disruptive technology on a business model which is rapidly becoming stressed and replaced with news being gathered online. The big question for our print media is how to make that pay. A discussion on this would require another whole piece, but contributes to an environment in which instability and restructuring are the norm and the craft of “good journalism” is under high stress.
A 2010 report by the UK media academic Chris Hanretty ranked New Zealand’s TVNZ as 19/36 for perceived independence. Australia’s ABC was ranked 5th and the BBC 6th.
Since then the situation has significantly deteriorated. Our only (small) public television broadcaster TVNZ7 was axed by the conservative National Government in 2012. The state owned broadcaster TVNZ had its public service charter removed in 2011 and has been forced to become fully commercial.
New Zealand is now the only country in the OECD (bar Mexico) which does not fund a public television broadcaster.
Our public service radio broadcaster Radio NZ has had its funding frozen for more than three years. It has become lonely and increasingly isolated as the beacon of media freedom in a commercialised and cynical media environment.
The past four years has seen the steady decline in the news media’s effectiveness to report fair and balanced information on news and current events. Government policy has created a media environment in which the news media cannot function efficiently, increasingly leaving citizens in the dark about decisions that affect their everyday lives.
Market pressures force the news media to focus on ‘infotainment’ or the sensational in order to keep costs low and profits high. This has led to an environment where reporting standards continue to slip leaving significant events and decisions with little or no coverage.
Government policies have also included a deal between TVNZ and Sky TV (Igloo) which essentially maintained Sky TV’s monopoly of the pay TV market, and the failure to reserve spectrum for public service broadcasting after the digital switch over.
The Government’s support of commercial media and continual disregard for public service content can also be seen in the recent funding decisions of NZ on Air (NZoA) which acts as the Government’s broadcasting funding mechanism, supporting locally produced free to air content across all broadcasting mediums. NZoA’s annual statement of intent must be approved by the broadcasting Minister and Government, which means the Government of the day has a direct influence on it.
Recent NZoA funding decisions certainly reflect the Government’s priorities and ethos regarding the media. TVNZ 2’s reality television show NZ’s Got Talent recently received $1.6 million, and while the show arguably does show young New Zealand talent it is certainly questionable whether the commercially-attractive formulaic programme should have been considered for arts and culture funding.
Despite public concern, NZoA recently announced that it would spend another $1.6 million to fund TV3’s The X Factor NZ, another talent show based on a similar format. Rather than producing cultural content that genuinely would not be produced without funding, NZoA has continued to support major broadcasters through the funding of commercially viable content.
NZoA has based its funding decisions on dividing funds equally between major broadcasters rather than in the interests of the public. Whilst these foreign formatted reality television shows have received $3.2 million out of the tax payer’s pocket running on prime television at peak times attracting advertising dollars, local current affairs shows and unique locally conceived drama and factual shows are nearly at the brink of extinction.
These decisions made by NZoA reflect the Government’s stance on a free, fair, and balanced media. NZoA funding is only one example among many in the Government’s support of commercial broadcasters at the cost of citizens.
TVNZ has recently replaced its log running current affairs nightly programme Close Up with 7 Sharp which can at best be described as infotainment rather than investigative journalism, and fair and balanced information.
Perhaps the most bizarre event recently in the New Zealand media is pay-TV provider Sky TV announcement that it will air a public service channel. Beginning in February Sky TV is airing Face TV, a public service channel dedicated to screening local and international news and current affairs.
Whilst some could argue that this is an instance of the market filling a gap, this argument is deeply flawed as the channel is behind Sky TV’s pay TV wall and therefore is not accessible to all New Zealanders. This move by Sky TV reflects that New Zealanders not only need but also but want public service content, and signals the Government’s blatant disregard of non-commercial broadcasting in New Zealand.
The New Zealand media truly is in dire straits. Government policy and direction has created a media and political environment that is simply unable to provide the information that citizens need to make informed decisions leaving dominant powers unquestioned and unchecked. The rights and interests of the citizen are no longer protected. This boils down to whether democratic processes can work without an effective and efficient news media. Perhaps ironically, if the news media had been functioning properly these issues may have already been addressed.