Once again New Zealand has received the tick of approval in the latest World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders describes the country as perfecting its role as a regional press freedom model.
We sit at 13th out of 180 in the 2023 index. That is down two places on last year but is still well ahead of countries with which we are regularly compared – Canada (15), the United Kingdom (26) and Australia (27). In fairness, however, we should acknowledge that our cousins across the Tasman have gained 12 places.
The index scores countries on five distinct indicators: political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context, and safety. The surveys are exhaustive. I know, because I was one of the New Zealanders surveyed. Country participants are asked between 12 and 33 questions in respective categories, and they are probing.
Our lowest score relates to economic constraints (77.45%), and I suspect this is due less to governmental constraints on the media business than to the advertising and revenue pressures that our news organisations are enduring. I wonder what the score would have been if the methodology gave dispensations for an inability to counter the unbridled power of multinational search and social media platforms.
Our next lowest score (78.62%) was in legal frameworks, which examines restrictions on freedom of expression and the ability to access information. I have no doubt that our score (which is well below Canada’s 86.48%) is due principally to the shameful manipulation of the Official Information Act and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act by politicians and officials.
In a report on 12 government agencies last September, the Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, found that many of their media teams were in breach of the OIA in how they handled requests and there were unacceptable delays (that he is now monitoring more closely). Yesterday, the Minister for Māori Development was censured by the Ombudsman for failing to respond to Official Information requests within the statutory timeframe. There’s a certain irony in the fact that Willie Jackson is also Minister for Broadcasting and Media.
At a local level, transparency is an issue. For example, late last month Otago Regional Councillor, Michael Laws, accused his council of failing to conduct its business in an open, transparent, and democratically manner – in other words, he said it was in breach of the Act. He has walked out of two consecutive closed-door council meetings in protest. Closed door meetings – sometimes characterised as ‘briefings’ – are endemic in local government in New Zealand. A Waikato Times investigation in April found that secret briefings of councillors were happening in more than half of Waikato and Bay of Plenty Councils.
New Zealand scored 84% on social and cultural contexts, which was outside the range of all but one other country (Luxembourg) in the top 25 rankings. I was initially surprised by that result but the more I thought about it, the more I saw in as an accurate reflection of the constraints on discussing certain social and cultural subjects. For me, the canary in the coalmine was the cancelling of seven academics who wrote a letter to the New Zealand Listener questioning the place of Mātaurangi Māori in science. What should have been the subject of robust discussion rapidly became a no-go zone. Transgender and co-governance issues have similarly been cast into divisive voids when discourse would be the best path to understanding.
We ranked sixth in the world in a political context with a shade under 90%. This measures the degree of support for media autonomy, plurality, and being able to hold politicians and government to account. I was pleased at that result because it helps to give the lie to idiotic notions that New Zealand’s media were ‘bought off’ by the Public Interest Journalism Fund. I continue to be amazed at how many seemingly intelligent people have repeated that fallacy.
Our highest score (91.3%) related to the safety of journalists. It accurately reflects the realities of media freedom in this country, although news crews subjected to threats and vitriol during the occupation of Parliament grounds might feel conspiracy theorists pose a threat, not politicians. New Zealand rose four places on that index but still sits at only 17th. The safest country for journalists is Samoa, which scored 99.09% and rose a creditable 15 places.
The overall World Press Freedom Index produces few surprises in the top and bottom. The best performers are Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland with positions jockeying from year to year. At the bottom, North Korea maintains its invidious position with an overall score of only 21.72%. China has dropped four places to sit just above Kim Jong Un’s regime with a shade under 23%. Then follow Vietnam, Iran and Turkmenistan. Russia has dropped nine places to sit at 164th (with a score of 34.77%) and I think we can confidently predict a further slide next year.
One should never be complacent about press freedom. It is a fragile flower that can be so easily damaged or cut down, sometimes by misguided ‘good intentions’. I think back to the attempt in 2001 to reintroduce criminal libel in New Zealand. The consequences for news media, perhaps unintended, would have been disastrous and it was later withdrawn. It could so easily have passed into law.
I have got into the habit of applying what I call The Trump Filter to any move that might affect the ability of our news media to perform their civic functions. The filter requires an assessment not of how it will be used by today’s politicians but how it might be weaponised by a future politician whose agenda may be wholly different. It was in that context that the lack of safeguards in the now-axed merger of Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand became so problematic.
We can take some pride in our place in the 2023 index but placement outside the top 10 means our report card should carry the caveat “but could do better’.
God bless the King (but preserve us from preambles)
Yes, I am a monarchist. My mother and her sisters would come back to mercilessly haunt me were I not. I am the product of an upbringing which, decades after the family left grim and grimy South Shields, still called England ‘home’ and put out bunting during a Royal visit.
I watched the ceremony in Westminster Abbey and marvelled that I could be witnessing history as it happened (rather than being taken to the cinema as a six-year-old to see film of the 1953 coronation months after it occurred).
What I stopped watching were the hours of build-up and pointless interviews that preceded anything actually happening. For both TVNZ and TV3 to begin coverage at 7 p.m. on Saturday was over-enthusiastic, to say the least. That said, the coverage of the procession to and from the abbey and the service within (which I began watching almost three hours after Melissa Stokes and Daniel Faitaua had their first cup of Earl Grey), was something I will never forget.
Less memorable was the Sunday Star Times coverage the next morning. The paper’s republican leanings were in little doubt when reportage of the event was almost matched by anti-royal commentary. The Herald on Sunday did better, chronicling events and largely limiting commentary to analysis of what is, rather than what some think it should be.
If you were waiting for Monday to produce commemorative editions, you would have been a little disappointed unless you live in Otago.
The New Zealand Herald devoted its front page and another six news pages to the ceremony while Stuff’s metropolitan newspapers had no front page acknowledgement and a sprinkling over four or five pages inside. The Otago Daily Times.on the other hand, devoted its front page to a portrait of the King and Queen, covered local celebrations, and treated readers to a keepsake eight page souvenir section, replacing its usual Monday World Focus. The ODT’s coverage showed northern counterparts how it should have been done.