Time to deliver, Minister

Kris Faafoi’s reappointment as Minister of Broadcasting and Media is welcome news, but now he has to deliver.

He was not dealt a particularly good hand when he inherited the portfolio from Clare Curran in the Ardern government’s first term. 

On her watch there was the expectation of a new RNZ TV channel plus a new funding body to disperse government funding to media. However, only a fraction of the necessary funding was forthcoming in Grant Robertson’s first budget. Policy was a long way from practice. Then she fell from grace after a series of blunders.

Faafoi had the chalice in his hands but he needed to have it forensically checked before he was ready to put it to his lips. As a former television journalist, he had the knowledge and experience to know it was likely to contain dangerous impurities.

The result was a major policy reset. Clare Curran’s vision was another country and, after protracted consultations with the industry, he looked ready to embark on a different set of imperatives aimed at updating media structures that had fallen behind the times.

Then Covid-19 and (as good authority would have it) the NZ First handbrake intervened. A new entity to replace TVNZ and RNZ lost its sense of urgency. A clear message went out that the government would not ‘prop up failing media companies’ and a second tranche of Covid assistance (the first benefitted commercial broadcasters, not least TVNZ) was kicked into touch after NZ First raised concerns that it could amount to a bailout of benefit for foreign-owned media companies. A Labour policy document on the future New Zealand media landscape was also apparently parked.

Labour came to regard media policy as something that could be dealt with after the election. 

Well, here we are. The election has been held. Labour has a clear mandate. And the problems facing state-owned and private sector news media have not gone away. They may well get worse before they get better.

Faafoi has a good grasp of the issues but understanding problems does not amount to fixing them. It will do little good to attempt a fix here and a remedy there on a system that is broken. He must lead a fundamental recrafting of the media landscape.

If Labour does, in fact, have a media policy document in  the making we need to see it. If it falls short of that holistic rethink of the media sector, it needs to be done again…and quickly.

Haste is needed because no single political party can simply impose its version of a media landscape. Labour’s policy document can be no more than the starting point of a broad-based discussion leading to a general consensus on how public and private news media and the journalism they produce should be made fit for purpose. That discussion is the purpose of the Bretton Woods #2 summit I have advocated [https://knightlyviews.com/2020/04/07/nz-media-must-rise-from-covid-blitz/]. It needs to be concluded within the next six months.

On the table should be:

  • A blueprint for tiered public and private organisations capable of sustaining journalism at each level, able to fill ‘democratic deficits’ in coverage, and meet the differing cultural needs of sections of the community.
  • The restructuring of TVNZ and RNZ into a single entity that preserves the non-commercial imperatives of RNZ while sustaining the future of TVNZ’s commercial media. It should also provide back office and production services to Māori Television and Iwi Radio.
  • Legal and taxation reform to provide private sector media with sustainable alternatives to dividend-based capital structures.
  • A new model for financial support, including redevelopment of NZ on Air to fully reflect its role as a funder of all media, not just broadcasting plus some hangers-on. 
  • A trans-Tasman approach to financial recompense for news media content appropriated by social media (following the lead taken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission).
  • Cooperative structures such as: (a) an independent national news agency to provide a base news service that avoids wasteful duplicated coverage (b) digital platform provision and back office services (c) industry-wide advocacy
  • Regulatory reform to resolve the anachronism of having both the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the New Zealand Media Council.
  • Establishment of a Media Futures Commission to plan the deactivation of traditional forms of media and their replacement.

Kris Faafoi has the standing within the industry and within government to champion major change. The cathartic effect of pandemic provides the right environment for bold initiatives. 

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has also had an economic impact that has made a weak media sector even more fragile. Time is running out for some of its members, and that means Faafoi does not have the luxury of incrementalism. Nor, in the interests of democracy, can he afford to rescue state-owned media at the expense of private sector players. 

Three years is barely enough time to refashion the media landscape. Kris Faafoi started to develop some worthwhile planting plans, but he had not turned much of the soil before the Covid winter descended. He needs to start the tractor and get moving.

Vale Robert Fisk

The sudden death of Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk is a shock. At 74, he seemed to have many years of insightful coverage left in him.

Fisk was a foreign correspondent on The Independent when the New Zealand Herald was part of the same Tony O’Reilly stable and we had access to his impressive output that analysed Middle East events from a unique perspective.

Sometimes his approach was so unique I felt obliged to run the Daily Telegraph’s John Keegan alongside his despatches to give an alternative perspective. There was never any doubt, however, about his depth of knowledge and professionalism.

And he produced some great stories – such as his interviews with Osama bin Laden.

I only met him once (on a visit here) but he was one of those people who, once met, was not forgotten.

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, summed up his contribution: “He was fearless & independent in his reporting, with a deeply researched understanding of the complexities of Middle Eastern history and politics. He helped many people understand those complexities better.”

Bouquet

To The Spinoff staff writer Alice Webb-Liddall for giving up social media for a fortnight and concluding: “For so many years, social media had me in its net. It sold me products, and sold me as a product to companies wanting my data, and I didn’t fully realise the effect it had on my mental health. After 10 years of daily use, I came to believe I needed it in order to stay up to date with everything. Logging off for just two weeks, I realised that’s the opposite of the truth. It needed me, and I cut it off.”

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