Where has all the policy gone?

Within the term of the next government our news media will, for good or ill, fundamentally change. Yet where are the major parties’ policies to anticipate, influence and ameliorate the effects of that change?

Only the Green Party has posted a media policy statement for the October election. It contains useful proposals such as the Public Interest Journalism Fund (which also featured in its 2017 manifesto) and a tax on digital advertising to claw back money from Google and Facebook, but it is predicated on the status quo.

Labour, National, New Zealand First and ACT have yet to announce their media policies – if they have any – and voting starts only 33 days from now. Interest.co.nz has been tracking party policies and its section on media policy is peppered with the phrase “Not yet available on their website”.

This suggests New Zealand’s media are a low political priority, in spite of the role they have in a democracy. Or has Covid-19 so overwhelmed the party policy wonks that they have a developed a collective one-track mind?

In the absence of coherent future-facing policy, the changes that befall the media will be dealt with on an ad hoc basis that will do little to ensure the country has the pluralistic, professional and sustainable media landscape that its citizens need and deserve.

That, of course, has been the standard approach by successive governments that have dealt with (or ignored) isolated issues even when the news industry has undergone significant seismic shocks.

Admittedly, private sector media interests for a very long time have worked assiduously to keep government as far away from their activities as possible. They kept state regulation away from print and online media, gained an exemption from the Privacy Act, broke the state’s near monopoly on broadcasting, and for almost half a century have ensured they were free to sell their businesses to overseas interests. Their ‘successes’ recognised that there is a balance to be struck between the powers of the state, the rights of private enterprise, and the freedom of the press.

There is, however, a striking difference between then and now. At no time in the past was the viability of the entire sector under threat.

How can I say that when media are reporting good news about themselves? 

  • A headline on Radio New Zealand’s website on Sunday read: “Is the Covid crisis over for commercial media?” 
  • Paul McBeth of Businessdesk reported a week ago that “NZME is putting dividends on the table next year after whipping the business into shape”. 
  • Colin Peacock on MediaWatch on Sunday reported that TVNZ was “upbeat”. 
  • Sinead Boucher told RNZ’s Kim Hill she hadn’t needed to bring any financial backers into Stuff. 
  • Bauer’s magazines are being resurrected by a clutch of new owners and new titles are being added. 

That may explain why Communications Minister Kris Faafoi announced that the planned second tranche of assistance to media had not even made it to Cabinet. And it made it easier for New Zealand First to push the populist buttons by archly declaring that it would not prop up foreign-owned media companies.

So, nothing to worry about. Right? 

Wrong. 

We are, in fact, merely in  the calm eye of a storm. The underlying issues facing the industry have not gone away.

  • The commercial business model is broken: Advertising has been drained away, and audiences depleted, by competing (non-news-producing) platforms.
  • Foreign ownership has proven to have a destabilising, rather than supportive, effect and it will be exacerbated by any further financial decline.
  • Workforces have been depleted by policies that validate cost cutting as a sustainable alternative to revenue growth.
  • Financial imbalances continue to exist between national, regional and local media.
  • Institutional policies, including tax, are based on established media models that are no longer fit for purpose.
  • Regulatory systems are outmoded.
  • State-owned media organisation is no longer fit for purpose in a converged media environment. 
  • Government financial support of private sector media is based on gap-filling.
  • Technological development and utilisation are piecemeal.
  • Public trust in journalism remains low.

We need our major parties to articulate holistic policies that will contribute to an environment in which pluralistic, professional and sustainable news media can exist. 

That does not require the parties to have all the answers: That, as I’ve said before, will come from broad church engagement. What it does require is a recognition by them that major change will happen (whether we like it or not) and the next government has a major part to play as facilitator, supporter, and innovator.

The public are the ultimate beneficiaries of the work that journalists and their organisations undertake. Therefore, voters have a right to know how each of the parties that may form the next government view the fortunes of news media over the next three years and beyond. Right now, for the most part, voters don’t know what each party will do to sustain the flow of trustworthy news and information…or how much they care.

“Tweet, tweet” went the front page

Last Wednesday the New Zealand Herald’s dominating front page headline read: Team of 5m: “We’re over it”. It was linked to a story about a survey of 435,318 social media posts during the latest Covid-19 lockdown and treated it as if it was a traditional ‘scientific poll’. Should it have done so?

‘Social media’ and ‘scientific’ sounds like mutually exclusive terms, but academics are giving weight to the use of data gathered from social media in gauging public opinion. There’s a name for it: Unsupervised sentiment analysis.

Comparative analysis studies have shown there can be a reasonable correlation between, for example, Twitter mentions of a candidate’s name and their standing in opinion polls. 

However, it is not a simple matter and researchers are at pains to point out that social media surveys are deeply nuanced. There are numerous factors that influence outcomes.

For example, American studies have shown that Twitter does not accurately represent the social and demographic makeup of the country and that political leanings can affect the level of activity. Social media provide a biased, non-representative sample of society.

Researchers have found also that social media posts tend to reflect pre-existing personal perspectives and that highly divisive polarising issues may not result in meaningful exchanges but, rather, attract supporters.

The nature of social media posts is also influenced by proximity to associated events…such as elections.

So, while we may all be sick and tired of that murderous bloody virus, we need to take all of these factors – and more – into account in giving weight to the findings. Or, more particularly, to the way they have been reported.

I encourage you to read the study itself (https://e9c1bcad-43a7-4d9f-a16f-f88e59dd0158.usrfiles.com/ugd/e9c1bc_d38be31f613b40009b12b6f28c0f3225.pdf).

The authors of the study, Rutherford Labs, state that they use social media analysis “as a real-time barometer of unsolicited public opinion to complement traditional research methods”. They also say that it works best when cross-validated by “more robust techniques”.

Bearing in mind all of the foregoing, their analysis certainly shows a majority of social media users didn’t like the latest lockdown or almost everything associated with it. But it’s fair to say that the greatest angst was at the beginning of the second lockdown, not the end. In fact, the highest level of activity on civic confidence (44.2 per cent of the total conversations) was on August 12 and by August 24 was reduced by half.

So what prompted the headline? “Over it” appears in the community analysis, which represented only five per cent of the total conversations. 

One thought on “Where has all the policy gone?

  1. Well said Gavin. It’s a huge gap in the pre-election debate where alas the urgent is – albeit understandably perhaps – taking precedence over the important. The Herald’s sloppy reporting on Monday was at least amended/ corrected on Wednesday but in small print where few would see it – so the damage of misinformation was done.
    We need and deserve better than this – particularly at this important time.

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