Nine Laissez-faire Years

A short extract from my chapter in “Stardust and Substance”, published this month by VUW Press.



The ruling National Party failed to attend two 2017 conferences at which other political parties heard of growing anxiety over the state of the news media in New Zealand.  There is telling symbolism in an empty chair.

Election policy announcements by Labour, the Green Party and New Zealand First in the following months each contained plans for improving the media landscape. The National Party’s communications policy made no mention of media initiatives. By contrast, one of incoming Prime Minister Bill English’s first acts in December 2016 was to abolish the broadcasting portfolio. Not only was the chair empty, it had been removed from the table.

Three strong philosophical influences were behind National’s apparent indifference to the increasingly obvious deterioration in a vital aspect of the public sphere. They were core elements of English’s administration and John Key’s before him. The first driver was deep-seated neo-liberalism. The second was the maintenance of traditional power structures. The third was the gravitational pull of the status quo.

National, throughout its three terms in government leading into the 2017 election, had allowed neo-liberal market supremacy to shape its policies toward the news media even when market failures were looming on the horizon. It had inherited from Labour a long-standing lighthanded combination of state regulation and self-regulation of the media that generally suited its philosophical outlook. In common with Labour it subscribed to the long-held view that private sector mainstream media should not be unnecessarily antagonised (even if the sleeping giant’s muscles were now being affected by a digital wasting disease).

In short, the National-led government’s attitude to media policy and regulation over almost a decade was laissez-faire, with the occasional nod in the direction of laissez-aller – unchecked freedom – and even an embarrassing case of aide d’état (state aid). Initially, however, it had some ‘anomalies’ to undo.

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