I am worried.
I am worried that New Zealand’s media ecosystem is about to be adversely affected by Government initiatives that should be closely coordinated but which are each taking their own course.
There may be a grand strategy but, if that is so, the New Zealand public have not seen it.
Instead, we are slowly becoming aware of strands of policy that have different focal points, different timeframes, and different potential impacts. There are cross-currents that mean each of these policies will have consequences for media outside the primary focus.
The situation is made worse by the fact that much of the policy work has dealt with high level concepts that leave the detail until later.
These combined factors are not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but they are certainly from the Unintended Consequences Cookbook.
They are the result of the long gestation of Government initiatives over the past five years that Labour wants to bring to fruition before next year’s general election. Some are more advanced than others. As a result, legislation is before the House on one project, in strategy paper form on another, still under discussion on a third, while the fourth is little more than a passing comment.
None of these projects should be considered in isolation, nor should one initiative be retrofitted to meet the needs of another that comes up behind it. Yet there is emerging evidence that this is exactly what could happen.
The afternoon before public submissions on the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill closed, a cabinet strategy paper Strengthening the Māori media sector for the future was released by the Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson.
I was involved in preparing a submission on the Bill by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures (I am an affiliate). The nature of our submission meant we were given a short extension beyond the deadline, and we were able to make a brief mention of the strategy paper. However, those who had already filed their views on the Bill – and I would guess that was the bulk of submissions – did not have that privilege.
If the proposals in the strategy paper are enacted, there will be direct impacts on the new entity that will replace Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand.
For example, the Minister (who is also Minister of Communications) states he intends “to commission Te Puni Kōkiri and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, in consultation with Whakaata Māori [Māori Television] and the new public media entity to explore the development of a sector distribution strategy…[which] would include the possibility of integrating to a single Māori and public media platform”. Other proposals include a shared Māori content strategy.
The implications of the proposals, if approved by Cabinet, would be far-reaching.
Let me make myself clear: I support the development of the Māori media sector, just as I support the replacement of RNZ and TVNZ with an organisation designed for the digital age. What I do not support is setting up one organisation and in short order changing it to meet the needs of another.
Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media (ANZPM) is already saddled with a development process that creates systemic problems. The Bill before Parliament deals in broad concepts (it is effectively an instrument to allow the merger of RNZ and TVNZ) while leaving virtually all of the structural and operational detail for an Establishment Board to determine. In other words, it gives legal authority and overarching purpose but no guidance on form and little on real expectation.
The fact that much of the detail around ANZPM is not in legislation makes it easier to change.
In addition to the Māori media strategy, the Government also has the Department of Internal Affairs undertaking a content regulatory review. Essentially this is a harm minimisation exercise but it not only targets fat white men sitting at their computers in their underwear spewing disinformation and supremacist poison on social media. It covers all media content and that means “any communicated material (for example video, audio, images and text made publicly available, regardless of how it is communicated)”. The review covers all media channels – broadcasts, published material, and online platforms.
Internal Affairs will be carrying out public consultation on the review between now and November with a view to presenting proposals for a new regulatory framework by July next year. New legislation will follow.
The review has implications for all mainstream media and, in particular, how they interact with their audiences. For ANZPM it holds the added risk of having to amend the way it interacts with audiences it has only begun to cultivate. And interactive platforms must play a major role in the new entity.
All of these Government initiatives have significant impacts across the New Zealand media landscape and will be challenging to say the least.
TVNZ and RNZ face a future in which very different commercial and non-commercial cultures must somehow be reconciled. In the pipeline are equally large challenges in possibly integrating Māori and broader audience expectations. Private sector media face possible market distortion caused by the amalgamation of TVNZ and RNZ, and potentially aggravated by ANZPM’s integration with Māori media. The market, after all, is not limited to selling tv commercials. Increased resource and audience size equals increased influence across the board.
And we have yet to get to the passing comment.
An offhand comment during a conversation on another matter suggests to me that the Government is also thinking about cross-media regulation – the current bailiwick of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the New Zealand Media Council, and the Classification Office.
I believe it is high time we had a single body to replace one regulator for broadcasting, another for print and online, and a third with an overarching role in the prevention of harm.
However, the nature and mandate of such a single regulator have profound implications. If it is a statutory Government appointed body the independence of ANZPM from Government control must be manifest. Anything else would place far, far too much power in the Government’s hands. As the Bill now stands, ANZPM’s independence is open to question.
As an aside, such a regulator would signal a significant constitutional change. Print media in this country have never been subject to routine state regulation on content. The New Zealand Media Council (and the Press Council before it) operates on a self-regulation model. Any change to that status would be akin to the United States changing the First Amendment. A single regulator replacing our present bodies should be independent of Government.
And if the Government’s ambitions extended to a single communications regulator like Britain’s Ofcom (but with print media thrown in) the aggregation of regulatory power would be profound and not just a little worrying.
I find myself in a curious position. I actually agree with the Government on the need for change in all the areas I have discussed here. I agree with the concepts. I even agree with some of the detail. Where I totally disagree is the implementation process.
Cabinet should have approved (or rejected) relevant areas of the Māori media strategy paper before the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill was drafted. The Bill (with appropriate guidance on governance, structure and purpose) should have passed through the House before the Establishment Board began work. Content Review work should have been advanced to a stage where the Establishment Board could make an assessment on structural and operational impacts before ANZPM is launched. The Government’s intentions on wider regulatory control should have been made public before the ANZPM Bill was introduced to the House in order for the public to assess and make submissions on the independence of the new entity.
The works of the English playwright William Congreve may have been largely forgotten but not some of his more memorable lines, such as these from The Old Bachelor:
Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure:
Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.
To Deane Gage for his opinion piece in the Sunday Star Times at the end of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) that chronicled the emergence and growth of his Māori identity. It was a compelling story of a journey in which “Te reo Māori has turned a freezing worker into an academic, and a former Bounty bar into a chocolate-layered Moro”.What added to my appreciation of the article was the fact that it was full of expressions in te reo and on every occasion he included an English translation. It’s a much slower process than immersion courses but it is a way in which, slowly but surely, we will all come to know and appreciate te reo Māori.