New Zealand journalists have been done an immense disservice by those siding with conspiracy theorists who are convinced the nation’s mainstream media are in the government’s pocket.
Broadcaster Sean Plunket told Andrea Vance in the Sunday Star Times that state funding of journalism projects “comes with the requirement to adhere to certain editorial principles. That is not independence. In truth, many parts of the media are being compromised.” He singles out the $55 million three-year Public Interest Journalism Fund as the focus of this cash-for-loyalty theory.
Journalist Graham Adams, writing on the Democracy Project website, concluded a critical examination of the fund’s criteria with this: “But it’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to the trust the public has in media organisations than plausible accusations – or even just suspicions – that they have been bought with $55 million of taxpayers’ money.”
New Zealand Herald columnist Bruce Cotterill, citing not only the $55 million fund but the level of Covid-induced Government advertising, told readers: “If there is any risk that the media is skewing their representation of the performance of government, then we are indeed on shaky ground. In fact I suggest that there is nothing quite as dangerous in any democracy as a media that is beholden to the Government.” To its credit the Herald ran his column – no doubt mindful of the firestorm that would have accompanied its rejection – but added a rider signed by eight of its senior editors. It stated:
Our NZME and NZ Herald newsrooms operate freely and independently, without fear or favour, in our editorial pursuit. The Fourth Estate is a critical pillar in the New Zealand democracy and the Herald’s editorial independence is enshrined in our code of ethics: “We will be independent and not bow to improper internal or external influences”. Any suggestion that our journalists — and those more broadly in New Zealand — are failing to ask hard questions of both the Government and opposition politicians is rejected.
At this point I need to make a disclosure: I was one of a group of independent assessors who made initial recommendations – decisions are made by NZ on Air staff and its board – on applications to the fund. I am bound by commercial confidentiality agreements not to discuss the applications and I do not intend to do so. However, I feel I have a right to defend the professional journalists whose work may be funded by the scheme, and the organisations that employ them.
The fund must achieve five objectives that I will set out verbatim:
- Seek to inform and engage the public about issues that affect a person’s right to flourish within our society and impact on society’s ability to fully support its citizens.
- Provide accurate, accountable, and fair coverage that reflects and empowers all sectors of the community upholding the public’s right to know.
- Actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner
- Reflect the cultural diversity of New Zealand
- Encourage a robust and sustainable media sector.
Note that the fund must achieve these objectives. That does not place an obligation on every applications to tick all the boxes. However, collectively, those outcomes should be met.
Both Plunket and Adams highlighted the emphasis on the Treaty of Waitangi in the criteria. There is no doubt that part of the funding will redress imbalances in that area and some of the already-announced grants aim to do that. However, other projects emphasise civic needs. An example is a grant to BusinessDesk to examine the quality, size, organisation, capabilities, and composition of the public service. The fund will also allow Stuff to create a fact-checking project on public health. And it will allow investigative journalist Bryan Bruce to revisit his ground-breaking documentary Inside Child Poverty a decade on.
I could devote the rest of this column to listing the sort of spending NZ on Air is undertaking but that does not address the core of what is being said about the integrity of New Zealand journalists.
We all know the economics of commercial media have created shortfalls. Budgets have been cut, staffing numbers are well down, and there are areas once thought essential that now go virtually unreported. That is not a problem exclusive to New Zealand. Every democratic country faces the same problem. The money to sustain journalism must come from somewhere and, if it can’t be found in advertising or subscription income, it must be found elsewhere.
State subsidies and concessions of various kinds are increasingly common and there is currently a Bill before the United States Congress that would allow subscribers to local newspapers, digital-only publications, and other local news organisations to claim their subscriptions against tax and for local newspaper publishers to claim the wages of local news journalists as tax credits. The Washington Post reports the Local Journalism Sustainability Bill is gaining bipartisan support.
Scandinavia, however, leads the way in supporting public interest journalism through a variety of mechanisms including direct subsidy. And those countries continue to score highly in surveys of public trust of news media.
In The Nordic Edge, published by Melbourne University this year, former journalists Ebony Bennett and Maria Rae argue for the introduction of similar support policies in Australia. Government subsidies in Nordic countries, they say, “help ensure media diversity and support quality independent journalism, which in turn fosters healthy democracy”.
“It is time,” Bennett and Rae suggest, “for Australia’s policy-makers to consider that permanent subsidies might be required to ensure Australia’s news media ecology has enough news media options for an adequate and diverse range of views about current affairs to be available to the Australian public whether they live in Albany, Arnhem Land or Adelaide.”
In Nordic countries there is a perception that the state has a responsibility to maintain a diverse information and press system that serves democracy and its citizens.
“The main argument for direct support to the less dominant newspapers was to uphold political diversity and geographical diversity among newspapers,” the authors say. “The main argument against the press subsidies, mostly from parties on the Right of politics and some of the large media companies, was that state involvement could undermine their notions of press freedom.”
There is rarely an argument in those countries today that state involvement undermines press freedom.
“This is because there has been no significant government pressure in 40 years of the subsidies’ operations,” the authors say, “and because of the exceptionally high rankings of the Nordic countries on the World Press Freedom Index.”
Norway is ranked first in the 2021 index for the fifth year running. Finland maintained its position in second place while Sweden recovered its third place ranking, which it had yielded to Denmark (down 1 at 4th) last year. New Zealand is ranked 8th, well ahead of Australia at 25th, the United Kingdom at 33rd and the United States at 44th.
There is fundamentally no difference between the grants (being offered in New Zealand) and subsidies (common in Scandinavia, before Congress in the United States, and being suggested for Australia). The former pays for specific projects or the employment of staff to meet civic reporting or training needs. The latter is an indirect means of achieving the same end. Either way, the object is to sustain public interest journalism. Unfortunately, whatever the form of support, there is the potential to claim that journalists have been ‘bought’.
At worst, it gives rise to the image of Grubb Street, the early 19th century home of London hacks who would write anything for money. Or it results in deep forebodings about media companies being afraid to bite the hand that feeds them.
Either extreme – and the varying levels of evil that lie between them – fails to take account of a set of facts. Let’s stick with the New Zealand set.
We’ll begin with statutory constraints.
NZ on Air is established under the Broadcasting Act as the Broadcasting Commission. Sections 42 and 44 of the Act prohibit the sort of interference alluded to by the Dark Forces. Section 42 prevents NZ on Air from giving any editorial direction on projects it funds, and Section 44 specifically prohibits government ministers from giving direction in respect of programme content and, specifically, news and current affairs.
Now let’s consider constraints within the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
The Cabinet paper that led to the establishment of the fund noted that allocations of funds must be “at arm’s length from Government”. After consultation with potential grant recipients, NZ on Air inserted into the general guidelines for applications a section headed “What Public Interest Journalism is NOT”. Among the nine areas that specifically will not be funded are national political coverage and opinion. So coverage and commentary within the precincts of Parliament and the Beehive get no financial backing.
But..but…but, I hear the conspiratoriat splutter, formal safeguards don’t matter because the effect is more subtle: The media roll over because they want to keep the money coming. They usually add that all journalists are ‘lefties’ anyway.
If don’t-rock-the-boat is taken a little further, we have to conclude that mainstream commercial media will do nothing that has the potential to reduce or eliminate a source of finance. Were that the case, no media outlet would question rising house prices, give a car a poor review, allow bank customers to castigate yet another branch closure, or question supermarket chains’ relations with suppliers. In other words, nothing would be written that upset an advertiser.
In reality, even though revenue downturns have seen editors (grudgingly) accept the inevitability of material labelled ‘sponsored content’ and advertising-led sections such as home & property, the barrier between advertising and editorial is largely intact. Advertisers do not call the shots to editors and when they try they are politely – sometimes more forcefully – reminded that their power comes to an abrupt halt at the outer edge of an advertisement or the end of a commercial break.
The same goes for the reader, listener or viewer who contacts the editorial department in high dudgeon about a story that offended them in some way. They start by saying “I’ve paid good money for…” or “I’ve been a loyal listener for…” and expect this to instantly change an editorial stance. It does not.
Nor does a government have financial ‘clout’ when, in order to help media over the devastating effects of the Covid pandemic, it puts together a three-year assistance programme that has no guarantees of continuation.
And let’s put the Public Interest Journalism Fund’s average $18 million a year in perspective: That represents about eight per cent of NZME’s advertising revenue last year…and it has to be spread among the five major commercial media operators and a host of smaller players. Frankly, we’re not talking about a lot of money. But that’s beside the point. It is simply not a consideration when deciding what to put on tonight’s news bulletin or in tomorrow’s news columns.
I’ll spell it out: IT…DOESN’T…HAPPEN. Each newsroom has a decision-making routine designed to bring order to the spectrum of human experience in a constantly moving news cycle. A set of news values jostle for prominence with any given story and judgements are made at a speed that the uninitiated would label foolhardy and professionals take for granted.
These values have been subjected to robust analysis for decades. Forty years ago sociologist Herbert Gans spent months in American newsrooms trying to figure them out. He found that “the values in the news are rarely explicit and must be found between the lines”. They are not applied in a tick-the-box process but in a tricky piece of metallurgy that draws on the speed of mercury and a mix of experience to produce a solid amalgam that is a little different each time a story is smelted. Nowhere in that process is there consideration of whether a bit of money from the Government could be affected by what is broadcast or published.
We get closer to the truth if we turn the conspiracy theory on its head. In reality, it is the product of malcontents seeing and hearing things that don’t match their own viewpoint. If they don’t like it they invent a reason for it to be wrong.
We could simply ignore the slight against the integrity of honest, hard-working journalists if the accusations were limited to a few anti-vaxxers and Flat Earth followers. However, when influential commentators start singing the tune it is time for journalists to collectively defend their professional reputations.