NZ media must rise from Covid blitz

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

‘Post-war’ reconstruction

This week New Zealand media organisations are participating in a series of workshops that aim to help them through the commercial turmoil of the Covid-19 lockdown. It is an invaluable initiative by the Ministry for  Culture and Heritage that should provide some immediate relief, but no-one should expect it to be the long-term answer to their plight.

If our private sector media are to remain standing when the nation recovers from the aftermath of the pandemic, virtual workshops need to be followed by their own version of the Bretton Woods Conference that reset world financial systems after the Second World War.

If Covid-19 Level 4 is this generation’s World War 2, we are at the stage where things are likely to get worse before they get better.

We will start to emerge from lockdown (barring an extension) around the time our forebears were in the planning stages of the D-Day landings. They had already begun planning for post-war reconstruction. If we follow the time construct further, by the end of this month we should be – figuratively speaking – at about July 1944.  That was the month 730 delegates gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to plan the resurrection of the world financial order from the ruin of a devastating conflict.

Whatever you may think (in the 21st century) of the economic approaches of John Maynard Keynes and his American counterpart Harry Dexter White, their purpose at Bretton Woods was to create order from chaos and to rebuild.

That is what New Zealand will need to resurrect its indispensable private sector media. They went into this crisis woefully unprepared and will emerge from it looking like London after the Blitz or, worse, the destroyed cities of Germany and Japan.

Some parts of the media already lay in ruin and other areas will be damaged and sorely tested before this is over. We know that, when the media come out of this, things will not be the same.

Our state-owned media will be intact and plans for their integration into a single entity will doubtless continue on a new timetable. In the meantime, Radio New Zealand will be able to continue functioning much as it has – even if that means a return to the frozen finances it endured under National. TVNZ will have a tightened belt but it, too, has the reassurance of state ownership.

We must not, however, emerge from Covid-19 with a relatively secure state media and weak, impoverished and depleted private sector media with limited ability to speak truth to power. We must not have a media landscape so diminished that it can no long reflect society in all its facets and fulfil its primary function as the Fourth Estate. For that Fourth Estate to exist, there must be media, fully independent of the state, that government ignores at its peril.

Nominally independent state-owned media are not enough. Their independence is no more than a statutory guarantee that can be undone by a simple Parliamentary majority and, confronted by a hostile administration, they can be held hostage by the old adage ‘he who pays the piper can call the tune’.

It was no secret that private sector media have been in financial strife for years. None went into the present crisis with reserves of cash or resources. Some, it is now apparent, were already destined to be sacrificed. It is inarguable, however, that they and all other commercial media will be hard hit by the lockdown and the slow struggle back to economic ‘normality’.

NZME and MediaWorks used Covid-19 to justify a closure and contractions that were already inevitable. German magazine owner Bauer convinced few people that Covid-19 was really responsible for the abrupt closure of a significant proportion of this country’s magazine titles.

Only a portion of our news media were deemed to be essential businesses during the lockdown. Magazines and most community newspapers were put into an induced sleep from which many will not awaken. The Bauer titles have already been killed in action. With luck some of these KIA’s may be redesignated as ‘missing’ and could yet be found alive, rescued by brave partisans.  But how many of our 140 community newspapers can we expect to see again?

There are no guarantees the casualty list will end there. Those continuing to operate as essential businesses – mainly daily news media — have little in their financial reserve accounts to sustain them through the ‘war’. The loss of advertising and sales revenue will have profound effects. Redundancies and salary cuts are only the beginning. Newspapers may not see out the lockdown without losing their print editions…temporarily one hopes. Broadcasting operations that fall below a certain audience and financial threshold will be threatened and Radio Sport is already listed as killed in action. Debt levels that are already a fearsome burden, will rise if the companies can find banks willing to lend.

The result is that, as they emerge from 1944 and struggle into 1945, the private sector part of the media landscape will be irrevocably changed. Think Great Britain and its status before and after the conflict: Not the loss of empire (independence was overdue) but the reduced ‘voice’ it had in world affairs.

Post-Covid-19 we will be faced with numerous stark choices that extend beyond the future of news media, but we must not simply place these media companies in the long queue of commercial enterprises that will require resuscitation. Their purpose extends beyond commerce which, as far as their journalism is concerned, is simply a means to an end.

Bretton Woods led to the creation of the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development. ‘Bretton Woods 2’ must be solely for the purpose of reconstruction of New Zealand’s media sector.

No-one should be in any doubt about the scale of what will be required. This is an existential issue. The investor basis of private enterprise media may have reached its nadir. Will investors have the patience to stick with stocks whose price has tanked, and which pay little or no dividend? The answer, almost certainly, is no. Can we have private sector media without investors who primary expectation is a return on their investments? The answer, probably, is yes.

There are innovative ways in which news media can be sustainable and fun the privater sector. However, New Zealand may have to place itself in a trailblazing position.

This week’s virtual workshops are primarily between media companies and ministries. ‘Bretton Woods 2’ must be far wider in its representation and inputs. It will, after all, be tasked with refashioning a fundamental element of a democratic society.

A high level of ingenuity will be required in drawing up the list of delegates. This will not be a meeting of media and ministry minds. New Zealand society has too big a stake in the outcome for it to be limited to industry participants.

To be frank, they have displayed limited imagination in dealing with their declining fortunes to date. The merger of Stuff and NZME, and the sale of the television arm of Mediaworks, are stop-gap measures and not long-term solutions to eventual systemic failure. So why would one expect them to be highly innovative in recreating the counterbalance to state-owned media?

This will require a much wider skill set than media organisations can muster. It stretches across a broad spectrum that includes (but is not limited to) government, economics, intellectual property, law, commerce, entrepreneurship, technology, social sciences, culture, creative arts and, above all, the public of New Zealand.

Collectively, we must devise new, sustainable and enduring structures to house the endeavours of our media industries. And that includes new, perhaps novel, ownership and governance structures.

Just as the United States and the United Kingdom brought together 44 nations as the tide of war turned, it will be down to our government to be the convenor – but only the convenor – of ‘Bretton Woods 2’. It must not fall victim to the partisan politics that destroyed the outcomes of New Zealand’s National Development Conference in 1969 and the Knowledge Wave Conference of 2001. This must be a bi-partisan initiative and it must begin with no pre-ordained political agenda.

At stake will be the means of holding power to account. Common sense says it must not be for politicians to determine how that should be done.

Magazine archives – Our taonga

bauermags-1

Bauer’s abrupt closure of its New Zealand magazines leaves a vital issue as-yet unanswered: What will happen to the archives that titles like New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, North & South and Metro have built up over decades of publishing?

These picture and text collections are invaluable records of New Zealand life and the German publisher must not be allowed to treat them as mere chattels to be sold to recover a few dollars from what is left of its publishing empire here.

Some of the archival assets were left with previous owners under right of access agreements but by no means all.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage must institute an urgent enquiry into the fate of the archives, seek a full inventory of what it contains and, if necessary, invoke the Protected New Zealand Objects Act to prevent their export (if Bauer have a notion to sell them to a foreign buyer or send them to its Australian operation). They would qualify under a number of categories, not least of which is social history.

We have already seen a foreign owner ‘flog off’ picture collections. Fairfax sold the pre-digital photographic archive of Stuff’s newspapers to an American archive on a buying spree. It later crashed and burned amid a welter of lawsuits. It took several years for Fairfax to recover its images.

The Bauer archives must not be put at similar risk.

Gavin Ellis

Leave a Reply

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