They don’t give a Stuff about New Zealand

The New Zealand High Court has confirmed what was long suspected. An Australian media company was within days of closing vital sections of our news media – an action it would never have dared to take on its home turf.

The release of redacted material in a judgement over the Nine Entertainment Company’s sale of Stuff is further proof of the fact that foreign ownership of news media is contrary to the public interest.

If a sale deadline had not been met, Nine’s board had resolved to close the Stuff website, nine daily newspapers including the Dominion Post and The Press, two Sunday newspapers, more than 30 community newspapers, three magazines including top-selling TV Guide, and the Neighbourly website.

Sinead Boucher’s purchase of Stuff forestalled that action but only by a whisker.

Can you imagine Nine’s board contemplating the closure of even one of the Australian dailies it acquired when it bought Fairfax in 2018? We’re talking about the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Canberra Times  or The Australian Financial Review. To do so would risk a reversal of the cross-media laws that had been abolished a year earlier. 

The victims in Australia have been regional and community titles that individually have limited political significance or community consequence – unless you happened to rely on them for news. The cull began before the Fairfax sale and its closures pale beside News Corporation’s decision last year to axe 112 regional and community titles. In such matters it seems rural Australia doesn’t have much clout.

Here, Nine showed the same indifference to the needs of New Zealanders as did German publisher Bauer when it abruptly closed its magazine operations in this country. It did so because there would be no consequences to its actions. The value of Stuff likely was written down in the Fairfax sale (why else would Nine have had no regard for the asset?) and there were no political repercussions that could impact Nine’s other commercial operations.

The impact on this country, however, would have been profound. Three of the nation’s five metropolitan dailies would have gone, and they feed the country’s largest news website. Gone, too, would have been significant regional dailies such as the Taranaki Daily News, Manawatu Standard,  and Southland Times.

 Some titles may have been retrieved from the wreckage but there are no guarantees – just as there were no guarantees the Bauer magazine mastheads would be resurrected (thankfully, most have been).

Foreign ownership of media  has had little or no political relevance in New Zealand since the News Media Ownership Act was repealed by the Kirk Labour Government in 1973. The repeal allowed Rupert Murdoch to increase his holding in INL. The legislation, enacted by the Holyoake administration, had limited individual foreign holdings to 15 per cent and the total to only 20 per cent. There was a further prohibition on contractual foreign control of news services. Since then, the neo-liberal policies ushered in by the Lange-Douglas government opened the floodgates.

The sole benefit appears to have been an initial inflow of capital. That was then systematically reversed as foreign owners extracted profit and asset value as if they were transnational mining companies.

There is little evidence that foreign owners have exerted control over editorial operations (beyond setting budgets that have progressively constrained activity but, in fairness, that is a malaise affecting newsrooms generally). Certainly, my own experience as an editor of an overseas-owned newspaper was devoid of any serious attempts by head office to interfere in editorial policy. Even the meddlesome Murdoch did not interfere in the INL papers and MediaWorks’ newsrooms appear to have been free of influence by its various foreign owners.

The potential was there, even if it did not eventuate.

What has eventuated is the vulnerability we, as a nation, face because foreign media owners are ready to act with total disregard for the needs of New Zealanders or the place that media have in our social, cultural and political fabric.

Disaster has so far been avoided but there is a parallel with the latest community cases of Covid-19. Those three cases could have spread the South African variant of the virus through the Northland and Auckland communities like wildfire. The fact that it didn’t happen was down to luck.

Sinead Boucher’s $1 offer for Stuff could have been rejected because Nine did not want to leave any money in New Zealand (they have). Bauer, with a chequered history of negotiation, could have messed up its deal with Mercury Capital and the individual title buyers, with the result that its New Zealand magazines remained shuttered. The Discovery Channel could have had second thoughts about a deal that split the television and radio assets of MediaWorks in spite of their synergies. Lucky for us, the deals went through.

There are few certainties in this Covid-riven world, but we can learn from the events of the past 12 months. Where there are vulnerabilities, we can seek ways of reducing our exposure to risk.

Local ownership is not a miracle cure. Even as a vaccination the efficacy depends on its proprietary make-up. However, it usually is accompanied by some understanding of responsibility to – and standing in – the community. And it is difficult to walk away when you live in the same village. Our vulnerability would be diminished by working toward a greater level of domestic ownership and making it less attractive for foreign venture capital funds to invest in our media.

Not only do we need media owners who will retain a sense of local equity and responsibility toward our society, also we must find ways of ensuring that we maintain a mix of state-owned, publicly-listed, privately-owned and not-for-profit media operating across different platforms serving a range of audiences. 

That’s quite an ask and we can’t afford to leave it all to chance. It’s time to dust off some legislative safeguards.

Talk back to talkback

Also last week, former Auckland mayor and MP John Banks received his marching orders from Magic Talk over an exchange with a talkback caller that was racist whichever way you looked at it.

The goodbye came not as a result of immediate indignation at what was said but after advertisers said they would pull their dollars.

Various outlets waded into the controversy, which was widened to discuss the form, function and validity of talkback radio.

The Spinoff, which broke the controversy after it was first picked up on Tik Tok, led the charge with a forthright opinion piece penned by managing editor Duncan Grieve and republished on the New Zealand Herald website. In it he said: “…Banks was not hired despite his views – he was hired because of them, and what happened on Tuesday was not an accident, it was inevitable, and in effect deliberate. And, it should be clear, unless there are more changes made, it will absolutely happen again. It’s a consequence of the format and the hosting decisions…”

Mitch Harris, former manager of Magic Talk’s previous incarnation Radio Live, wrote on the Stuff website: “Talkback produces the best and worst radio, in part because it is impossible to completely control. There are plenty of ways to mitigate the risk and elevate the discussion but that is dependent upon the skill and attitude of the host.” At no stage did he mention Banks by name.

To my mind, the most valuable contribution to the debate came from Andrea Vance in the Sunday Star Times. She took issue with Mediaworks boss Cam Wallace saying Banks’ type of behaviour was totally unacceptable and would never be tolerated.

“But he’s dead wrong. It has been and that’s the problem. For decades, talkback radio operators have been normalising this kind of hate speech… In pursuit of ratings, talkback stations have laid out a programme of toxic opinions, lies and conspiracy theories, with controversy and outrage their bread and butter.”

Vance said there was “a quaint notion” that the audience could take it or leave it, and the truth would eventually emerge from a clash of openly expressed ideas. This ignores the  economic, gender and racial disparities that exist across society and the amplification that talkback radio provides.

I think her description of the format was spot on:

It is the original outrage discourse, provoking fear, anger and righteousness. The format is led by the host, who often has as much to say as the caller. But in today’s commercial radio landscape, they dog-whistle with over-simplification, generalisations and often misleading information or scientifically disproved theories. They skirt the lines of intolerance and bigotry hiding behind a freedom of speech fig leaf. When challenged they rail against cancel culture, pitting themselves against the pitchforks of left-wing social media and the professionally offended. (Isn’t it funny how advocates often want to use that freedom to be transphobic, homophobic, racist, bash minorities and beneficiaries or deny climate science?).

Power held to account

The intro to the New Zealand Herald story summed up the man’s plight: “Trev Ponting is dying of brain cancer overseas – and all he wants is to get home to his mum.”

His family applied for a slot in managed isolation so he could come home from Japan.

Unfortunately, some official sent a letter to the family saying the application was denied as it did not fit under the “serious risk to health” category.

Little wonder that the story ran across the country’s media with a growing sense of outrage.

Within hours Managed Isolation and Quarantine had reversed its decision, without explanation.

The following day, MIQ told Stuff that it had a review system and decisions could be reversed “for reasons including new information or people’s situations changing”.

Forgive my cynicism but it seems the only circumstance that had changed was the involvement of journalists who correctly identified the obvious humanitarian need that had eluded MIQ officials.

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