Winston’s Royal Commission: Threat or opportunity?

We do not need Winston Peters’ Royal Commission into Media Bias and Manipulation, but it is high time we took a coordinated approach to the shape of our media landscape.

The New Zealand First manifesto coyly refers to a Royal Commission of Enquiry into Media Independence, but that is no more than a watered down title for the initiative the party announced with a petition back in June. And its Kaipara ki Mahurangi candidate, Jenny Marcroft, made the focus clear during the Better Public Media election debate last week when she referred to it as “a Royal Commission on Media Bias”.

This looks like vindictiveness. Such an enquiry would be no more than a witch-hunt, an opportunity for New Zealand First to address perceived slights and settle scores against journalists and their employers.

To be fair, though, at least NZ First (along with the Greens) has a detailed section on media policy in its manifesto. Some of its proposals, such as joint funding of media internships, have real merit. Sadly, its lead policy on media bias has none.

Let’s assume for a moment that NZ First does become the kingmaker in a new government. Giving in to Winston Peters’ wishes on the royal commission would be an easy concession, particularly if it traded away some of NZ First’s more wayward proposals.

Such an enquiry would be a disaster. Its true purpose, implicit in the petition title and Marcroft’s description, would be to level charge after charge against mainstream media organisations. In the process, the already depleted levels of trust in them would be further eroded, and their democratic purpose and role in social cohesion called into question. As the saying goes: No good will come of this.

Had it proposed a wider enquiry into the future of media, it may have been onto a winner. And, if Mr Peters does get his formal enquiry, it will be vital to move heaven and earth to broaden its remit to dilute (and hopefully eliminate) its misguided origins.

A call for a broadening of any Royal Commission’s terms of reference would be far more than just a tactic to take the sting out of it. There is a crying need for a comprehensive rethink of our media systems, and it must be very broad church.

We cannot – and should not – look to the major parties for leadership in this area: Labour and National lack any new media initiatives in their policy planks. The country would benefit, however, from a broadly-based enquiry into the shape of the media ecology we want for the future and, in particular, what we want our news media to be able to deliver.

That was a careful choice of words: There is no point in setting aspirational goals without also providing for a sustainable infrastructure capable of delivering it. That infrastructure does not begin and end with state-funded media. Privileging a sector over which politicians can exact a measure of control, while all around it wilts and dies, is the stuff of an Orwellian future. Like all healthy ecologies, it calls for rich biodiversity.

In the normal course of evolution, these things would develop organically. They would change over time, and the strongest and best adapted would survive. However, Charles Darwin wrote of the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature”, and the same can be said of the life and death of media enterprises: Just ask some of us who have been forced to abandon scuttled ships.

Media are at a stage where evolution requires intervention. To ensure that mediation is for a greater good, it requires a metaphorical ‘hand of God’. Or, if that conjures up a picture of Diego Maradona rather than theological symbolism, let’s say it needs a catalyst to bring together those with a stake in our civic future…and get them to agree.

In fact, it is past time for that to happen. Other countries are already addressing issues that are interfering with the ability to build and maintain an ecosystem that serves all of society’s media needs. Note: Needs, not simply desires.

Australia has been grappling somewhat imperfectly with the issues. It has had a raft of enquiries and reports and its media green paper of a couple of years ago has yet to produce the sort of results the country needs. As communications minister Michelle Rowland put it: “Media policy in this country has been ‘stuck in a rut’ of unambiguous agendas and failed execution.” The Albanese government is at least committed to changing that, even if it is taking more time that it had hoped.

Britain has a draft Media Bill under consideration by a House of Commons committee. The bill has already been subject to considerable input in its ‘pre-legislative’ stages but, although it is set to ‘reshape the broadcasting landscape’ and bring digital streaming services into line, it is not the comprehensive re-ordering of the media landscape that the title might suggest.

Similarly, Canada has also embarked on a programme to modernise its broadcasting systems in an initiative led by the country’s regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Again, however, it does not address the issues facing the newspaper industry.

Last month, France launched a consultation on the state and future of news reporting, Les etats généraux de l’information, and appointed a panel of experts to begin the process. It comes amid an alarming concentration of ownership in French media. Fifteen years ago, there was a similar initiative under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, but it failed to produce tangible results.

While none of these initiatives addresses the broad reach that is required, each is an attempt to deal with the systemic issues of a whole medium. This country has a sorry record of piecemeal ‘solutions’ to deal with isolated problems. As a result, we are beset by laws and infrastructure that are products of a past age and ‘solutions’ characterised by unintended consequences.

A week from now we will have some idea of the makeup of a new government, perhaps with the country’s most experienced coalition maker and breaker holding court.

If the result is a National-ACT-NZ First government, Winston Peters may fill a policy vacuum with his Royal Commission policy and the rest of his media manifesto. That may be a tipping point. As a first move, it could bring together New Zealand’s mainstream media to find common ground and common purpose in pushing for a comprehensive reappraisal of what the country needs from its media resources and how those needs can be sustainably met.

If they do not do so, they may have visited upon them a commission of enquiry that destroys more than it builds.

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