I have just read a brilliant essay by Irish journalist and intellectual Fintan O’Toole about the decline of the British identity. I see strong parallels with what is happening to New Zealand media.
In the essay, published by Foreign Affairs magazine, O’Toole puts context around the decline of Britain as a world power, the rising nationalism of the non-English elements of the United Kingdom, and the effects of Brexit. All of this has contributed to ‘Britishness’ losing its lustre.
“The United Kingdom created a beta version of democracy in the eighteenth century: innovative and progressive in its day but long since surpassed by newer models,” O’Toole wrote. “The country has, however, been extremely reluctant to abandon even the most egregious anachronisms. The biggest transformation in its governance was joining the European Union, and that has been reversed. It now has to make a momentous and existential choice—between a radically reimagined United Kingdom and a stubborn adherence to KBO [a Churchillian phrase: ‘keep buggering on’]. If it chooses the latter, it will muddle on toward its own extinction.
In my mind I substituted Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with those sections of New Zealand society who do not see traditional media as relevant or representing their interests. Just as the Celtic fringe embraced the European Union as a buffer against English domination, I imagined the disengaged here looking offshore and finding streaming and social media, to quote O’Toole, “in which they could advocate for their own interests and remain connected to bigger powers without being dominated by them.”
It took no effort on my part to see our news media organisations – “extremely reluctant to abandon even the most egregious anachronisms” – determined to ‘keep buggering on’ rather than radically reimagining their future.
I felt safe in that prediction because New Zealand media suffer from metathesiophobia. Although you won’t find it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is very real. It is a persistent, abnormal, and unwarranted fear of change. To overcome it, they self-medicate with a mixture of denial and incrementalism.
The now shelved merger of Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand is an example of incrementalism. Although touted as a brave new approach to public media, it was in fact no more than the stitching together of two existing organisations. The legislation that would have underpinned it had no hint of innovation or challenge. Indeed, until its promoters were pulled up by a select committee, it was grounded in anachronistic linear broadcasting.
So now the sector reverts to business-as-usual and that is a form of denial.
You see, business-as-usual no longer exists. Media organisations that think they can plan for next year in similar ways to this year and last year are turning a blind eye to reality. The social, commercial, technical and political foundations that underpin their endeavours are being pounded.
O’Toole’s essay contrasts the inclination of the Conservative Government “to double down on the defence of an archaic Britishness” with a Labour plan (devised by a commission chaired by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown) to clean up the British Parliament, replace the unelected House of Lords with an elected second chamber of nations and regions, and devolve more power to local governments in what Brown calls “the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster . . . that our country has seen.”
I imagine our media sector as the Conservative Government but the disturbing reality is that I see none within it who advocates the radical changes envisaged by Gordon Brown.
O’Toole makes an interesting observation that the devolution of power that has already taken place in the United Kingdom has left England without its own specific political identity. I wonder whether the fragmentation of audiences in this country, and the shift by the young to overseas sources, has created a parallel identity crisis for our media. Where once they represented a nation talking to itself, they may become that conversation with your parents that you keep putting off.
If you need convincing, look at NZ on Air’s Where are the Youth Audiences? It estimates the daily reach among 18-25 year olds is 18 per cent for TVNZ and 10 per cent for the New Zealand Herald compared to 65 per cent for Facebook and YouTube. Its broader All New Zealanders 15+ survey in 2021 showed Netflix and Instagram were almost neck-and-neck with TV1. I suspect that when the next general survey is released in August there will be more bad news for local media.
The parallels with O’Toole’s essay kept on coming.
Britain’s gross domestic product showed no growth in the last quarter of 2022. Similarly, New Zealand domestic media revenues are either declining or barely holding their own. TVNZ’s latest figures released last week showed revenue flatlining. Annually, it has risen by less than eight per cent over the past five years. NZME’s revenue, also announced last week, was similarly flatlining and is now lower than it was five years ago. Contrast that with digital only revenue (for that read Facebook, Google and the like) which, according to the Advertising Standards Authority, has more than doubled in that timeframe.
Perhaps the industry allowed itself to become side-tracked by the potential effects of a merged TVNZ-RNZ, at the expense of a serious reappraisal of its overall economic, political, and community identity.
I came away from my musings convinced that, once the political dust has settled on the aborted merger, we need a non-partisan version of Gordon Brown’s group to re-define our media and what they should collectively deliver for New Zealanders: A Commission on New Zealand’s Media Future.
In the introduction to its report, the UK commission stated that those who build the present in the image of the past will miss out entirely on the challenges of the future. Unsurprisingly, its recommendations were a radical blueprint for systemic change that it concluded were a ‘point of inflection’. Our media needs that radical change of direction if they are to meet the challenges of the future.
To Rachel Smalley for a forthright editorial on the Today FM website castigating Pharmac over its manipulative and aggressive tactics with the media. She took an Official Information Act request relating to the drug Trikafta and used it to systematically reveal a culture to which new Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall should demand an immediate halt.
MediaWorks has announced the resignation of its CEO, Cam Wallace, who has seen the radio and outdoor advertising group through major restructuring after its de-coupling from the television arm. Wallace came to the role from Air New Zealand at the height of the second Covid wave, and adroitly navigated the company through much-need cultural change following an independent review he commissioned into sexual harassment and bullying in the company.
His successor may be preoccupied with finally giving MediaWorks’ foreign private equity shareholders the exit strategy they have long sought. Wallace oversaw an attempted sale to Sky Network Television but merger talks fell through.