My weekly media commentaries were aired on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon programme on Radio New Zealand from 2011 to 2019. Here are links to the final year’s audio:
The PANPA Bulletin ceased publication in 2016. These columns appeared in its print edition.
WHEN MEDIA DECIDE TO MERGE
This column was written for the June 2016 edition of the PANPA Bulletin
Once upon a time there would be cries of democratic indignation at the prospect of most of a country’s newspapers being owned by one company. There would be demands that the plan be stopped in its tracks.
However, only fairy tales begin with “once upon a time” and merging the New Zealand assets of Fairfax and APN will pass largely unnoticed by most of the residents of that complacent nation. Within the media, there will an air of resigned acceptance and the monopoly watchdog Commerce Commission will be persuaded that it is the only available survival strategy.
Note the tense: The merger will take place as both parent companies are determined to exit the New Zealand market. However, the failure of APN to either float or sell NZME at the right price has been a reality check for both groups. Significant rationalisation plus the creation of a near monopoly in print and a significant digital platform provide the only prospect of leaving two slowly sinking ships with some realisation of value.
What happens, though, after the flotilla of lifeboats head back across the Tasman? Will the lashed-together New Zealand-registered ships be capable of finding safe harbour or will they simply sink more slowly? Much will depend on whether a replacement Kiwi vessel can find a more innovative and successful long-term business strategy than those of the Australian motherships.
In part, this will depend on how much debt the combined New Zealand enterprise assumes. The demerged NZME will take on $NZ102 million in pro forma net debt, along with liability for the outcome of a dispute with Inland Revenue that could see it face a tax bill of $NZ64 million plus penalties of 10 to 50 per cent. It is inconceivable that Fairfax will fold its New Zealand assets into the new company without offloading some of its debt. The long-term viability of the Kiwi enterprise will depend heavily on the weight of that ballast.
In the meantime, there will be a host of shorter-timeframe consequences. There will be headcount and systems consolidation. The inevitable newsroom reductions are already being rehearsed, as is the effect on the range of ‘voices’ that will continue to be carried in New Zealand newspapers. An impact on sales and back office staff is equally inevitable. However, there will be less effect on distribution systems as NZME and Fairfax NZ already have printing and distribution agreements.
Where there is duplication, it will go – as in the Sunday newspaper market where NZME’s Herald on Sunday competes with Fairfax’s two titles. The smaller of them, Sunday News, likely faces closure while the other title, Sunday Star-Times, will target the upper half of the market and its new stablemate the lower half. However, the majority of other titles in both stables are reasonably geographically distinct and, where there is duplication, there may be some consolidation of titles or re-arranged circulation areas. And it is equally likely that the restructuring will simply accelerate some hard decisions that would inevitably have to be made over less viable print publications, particularly in regional and community markets.
From an editorial point of view there are few positives in these scenarios – beyond the fact that they can prolong the life of newsrooms. There is, nevertheless, one large digital positive that APN has already rehearsed to jump a potential monopolies watchdog hurdle. The combination of Fairfax’s Stuff website with its two million unique visitors per month and Herald Online (1.6 million) would, even allowing for crossover, create a site able to compete locally with Googler and Facebook – the real enemies faced by mainstream media today. Even a complementary twin-site strategy with common advertising content would garner a greater share than the two competing platforms.
Unrehearsed in the commentary chatter, however, has been the consequences of the merger for industry bodies. The Newspaper Publishers Association and its promotional and commercial arm News Works are already dominated by the Big Two but they become hopelessly lopsided after a merger. The few remaining independents – the Otago Daily Times, Ashburton Guardian, Westport News and Gisborne Herald – will carry insufficient weight to justify continuation of the stand-alone industry body.
Nevertheless, there are benefits in the existence of independent bodies to represent a collective voice in dealings with government and regulatory bodies. Perhaps the demise of the NPA could be a catalyst for the formation of a Mainstream Media Association representing both print and broadcasting entities (with their digital enterprises). They already cooperate in the Kiwi Premium Advertising Exchange (KPEX), a joint programmatic advertising exchange service launched last year by Fairfax, NZME, Television New Zealand and MediaWorks.
Equally unrehearsed in the analysis the merger plan has been the effect on senior personnel beyond the creation of an NZME board following its demerger from APN. Merger with Fairfax NZ should signal a time for board and senior executive renewal. The new company will need new thinking if it is to reverse the decline that precipitates its creation.
A TAX ON THE RIGHT TO KNOW
This column appeared in the February 2016 edition of the PANPA Bulletin
Last year New Zealand dropped two places on an international index of perceived corruption and this year it is likely to slip further down that greasy pole.
One of the reasons advanced for last year’s demotion is stonewalling of requests under the Official Information Act. Delay, obfuscation, duck-shoving, redaction and refusal are common war stories among journalists who have experienced the frustration of seeking information under a system that has become highly politicised — to the point where ministers’ offices routinely play a role in determining responses to requests.
My prediction of a further slide on the index is based on a new tactic adopted in January. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand began charging news media organisations large sums for requests under the OIA and other agencies are expected to adopt the new policy.
There was no announcement, no opportunity for the news media to make representations on the potential impact. A Fairfax business journalist simply received an invoice for $651 to cover a request that would take “an estimated 8 ½ hours of chargeable time”. Unsurprisingly, Fairfax reacted with a Dominion Post editorial that described the charge as a “tax on democracy”.
The Reserve Bank responded that “far from being an obstacle in the path of freedom…the policy is a common, fair and reasonable response to a marked growth in OIA requests”. It also stated that it had given the Fairfax journalist an opportunity to “refine his request”. Faced with these two options the reporter withdrew it. The current culture relating to official information would rate that a victory — one-nil to the Reserve Bank.
In its response, the bank’s deputy director, Geoff Bascand, stated that charges could be waived in cases of hardship or “if releasing information is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the Reserve Bank and its work”. I understand that to mean the bank may not charge for information that shows it in a good light. The corollary, I assume, is that if you are seeking anything that shows the bank or its political masters in a bad light you can expect a hefty invoice.
The helpful offer to work with journalists to “refine requests” may reduce the anticipated workload and charges but it is also an opportunity to prevent journalists from casting a wide net for information. It is a means by which officials can avoid revealing material that journalists suspect is held by the relevant body but on which they have insufficient knowledge to make specific requests.
The Reserve Bank’s move follows a report on the Official Information Act by outgoing Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem that was singularly unhelpful to news media deeply unhappy at the way the legislation was being manipulated by politicians and senior bureaucrats. With a few caveats she gave the Act its Warrant of Fitness. She also said she saw no reason why media should be exempted from charges and encouraged departments to regularise their charging mechanisms. With the Ombudsman’s endorsement, the government could say it has right on its side and media charges are no more than a demonstration of fairness to all.
Newsroom budgets are in no state to cover high additional costs. The effect of government charges to media under the OIA can have only one result: a reduction in the number of requests made by journalists — two-nil to the politicians and bureaucrats. The Australian Freedom of Information Act has a public interest waiver in its section on charges. There is no such provision in the OIA although the preamble makes noble assertions about the public’s right to information.
In fact, user charges are another row of stones being mortared into place on the wall between journalists and the material they seek to hold government to account. The growing height of the wall is not, however, a right-wing conspiracy. The current National-led Key government has embraced wholeheartedly the “no surprises” policy on official information requests adopted under Helen Clark’s Labour leadership. It was outwardly designed to avoid slip-ups between coalition parties. However, it became a means by which a political risk assessment could be made before granting or refusing any requests.
I could fulminate at much greater length on politicians’ and state employees’ proprietary attitude to official information, which flies in the face of democratic concepts of government of, by and for the people. So I have written a book on the flawed nature of the New Zealand’s Official Information Act and its Bill of Right Act. It will be published mid-year.
We do need to keep matters in perspective: New Zealand retains a high rank on Transparency International’s 2015 table — it is fourth compared to Australia’s 13th place — but it can take no pride in the attitude its politicians and bureaucrats have adopted over the public’s right to know.
GEEKS BEARING GIFTS
This column appeared in the November 2015 issue of the PANPA Bulletin
Beware of Geeks bearing gifts.
You should know that already from Geek mythology but some of you never seem to learn.
Remember how staff at Odyssey Corporation came to grief after accepting corporate hospitality from Circe, the owner of Aeaea Limited? Remember how Odyssey Corp’s CEO, Odysseus, heeded warnings about Circe’s catering and avoided being turned into a pig? And remember how it was only Odysseus’ charming personality that eventually got Odyssey Corp out of one hell of a mess? It’s a cautionary tale and you should heed the warning because the Geeks appear to be in a generous mood again.
Seemingly overcome with largesse, they are offering places to traditional news media on just-launched galleys with names like Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP and Adblock Plus Whitelist. The Geeks say these are the vessels that will carry mainstream media away from the maelstrom that is tearing old business models apart.
Better than that, it looks like a freebie on a Mediterranean cruise ship. You know the deal: Eat and drink all you like, see exotic places and meet interesting people – all in exchange for a few travel pieces when you get back home.
The Apple News is one of these cruise ships and it has added Australia to its ports of call. New Zealand has yet to be put on the itinerary but that, no doubt, will happen. The Australian told us recently that it “…provides a one-stop shop for users to freely view content submitted by news providers and some of the biggest news gatherers on the planet are making a portion of content available”. According to Apple CEO, Tim Cook, it provides an opportunity to meet 40 million interesting people who like their news aggregated.
Some of the old hacks who have packed their bags to head on board are The Australian’s Life section, Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, Herald Sun, The Age, The Australian Women’s Weekly, ABC, SBS, and The Guardian. It will be a right old knees-up because The New York Times, The Economist, The Huffington Post, The Independent, The Express, and The Globe and Mail also are joining the cruise.
The Adblock Plus Whitelist sits at the other end of the Geek fleet – not a cruise ship but a rescue vessel. It is a means by which advertisers can avoid a new form of Geek fire: technology that blocks advertising on websites and mobile feeds. Publishers can buy a ticket on Adblock Plus Whitelist that (for a price) ensures certain advertisements can get through the Geek fire unscathed – as “acceptable advertising” – and make their way onto digital platforms.
These are but the latest in a series of Geek strategic moves that have pushed into the territory of newspaper publishers in Australia, New Zealand and just about everywhere else. The lion’s share of digital advertising revenue goes not to traditional publishers but to the likes of Facebook and Google, both of which are heavily reliant one way or another on the content that those publishers have paid to generate.
The Geeks have done a remarkable job in persuading publishers that they and their programmatic advertising cannot be beaten. So it is better to join them. That would be no bad thing as long as the benefits were mutual but the deck is stacked in the Geeks’ favour.
No longer content with simply appropriating content without payment, the Geeks are now marshalling publishers into positions where they may find themselves as client states. Is it too far a stretch to imagine a time when the generous Geeks begin to dictate the type of content produced by publishers in exchange for remaining on platforms whose users run into many millions? A time when user-generated aggregation and search algorithms on someone else’s platform dictate editors’ decision-making? A time when a white list joining fee is replaced by a generous cut of the revenue on each “acceptable advertisement” as protection money?
Arrogance is common trait among the Geeks, a digital native sense of superiority. They believe they can dictate and they will dictate. Publishers are deluding themselves if they believe they can make demands. Oh, they may be able to gain concessions now but over time their positions will weaken.
It is a little – but only a little – reassuring that the NZME, Fairfax Media, MediaWorks and Television New Zealand have created the Kiwi Premium Advertising Exchange (KPEX) to offer a programmatic option for purchasing online advertising inventory across the country’s media businesses. It is the beginning of a direct response to Google and Facebook but much more needs to be done.
The only defence against the Geeks is a grand alliance of publishers who collectively will be big enough to fight Geek fire with fire. Rivalry between titles and news media companies has to be consigned to history because there is a more dangerous enemy to be faced.
If Geek mythology doesn’t convince you, turn to Rome and Shakespeare”s Julius Caesar at the point where Cassius questions why Caesar is regarded as a Colossus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.
Writing on the wall for outsourcing newsrooms
This column appeared in the September 2015 issue of the PANPA Bulletin
To say that outsourcing has become a dirty word in New Zealand is an understatement. It has become a real stinker.
The source of the outsource odium is a British-based multinational called Serco, which manages the Auckland Remand Prison where serious assaults by prisoners and the death of a man on 24-hour suicide watch have led to it being described as “a hellhole”. The same company runs the Christmas Island Detention centre.
There have been increasing calls for the New Zealand government to cancel the Serco contract. It has already been forced to launch an enquiry and install a Corrections Department trouble-shooter to oversee running of the prison.
I concede that using this to introduce a column on outsourced sub-editing and page production is shameless attention-seeking. However, and in my defence, I would say that they have one thing in common. Irrespective of whether it is a prison, a hospital, a newsroom or a press hall, the principal purpose of outsourcing is to save money.
It is an equation that worked while the traditional concepts of newspaper production remained in play. Fairfax’s Australian regionals and the New Zealand newspapers in APN’s stable found Pagemasters an attractive proposition. The page-ready production service co-founded by (now) AAP chief executive Bruce Davidson and acquired by AAP in 2002 could sub-edit and paginate with fewer people and at lower cost. It was music to the ears of newspapers under pressure from shareholders to cut budgets.
And the sums added up. Pagemasters did deliver lower production costs and, despite friction due in part to geographic separation, newsrooms and Pagemasters collectively managed to keep the editions rolling out. The service attracted customers from as far away as the United Kingdom and AAP’s counterpart Canadian Press entered into a franchising deal in order to offer the service in North America.
However, after more than a decade of smooth sailing, Pagemasters has found two limpet mines attached to its hull. It remains to be seen whether they have been placed in positions that could sink the ship.
Both mines are digitally-activated. One is Fairfax’s decision to have reporters sub their own copy as part of the NewsNow rollout. The other is the decision by APN subsidiary NZME to merge the New Zealand Herald and The Radio Network newsrooms. In both cases the result has been the ending of Pagemaster outsourced production contracts.
Pagemasters may give itself some breathing space by opening a lower-cost operation in Vietnam but recent events highlight what have proven to be two fundamental weaknesses in the outsourcing model: First, it replicated stages of established newspaper production that could be overtaken by technology; and it was ill-equipped to have a natural role in an intensive digital-first multi-media news operation.
It is now evident that news production needs to be based on shorter process chains, multiple channels and constant output. The editing interventions that remain in those process chains – which will not be limited to text and still images – will need to be tightly integrated into highly complex production systems.
Short process chains are a reality. Major newspaper groups have committed themselves to digital first production with increasing numbers of stories going straight from reporter to websites and mobile apps or written directly into newspaper page templates. Theoretically, this removed the need for both text and layout subs (I say theoretically because a string of heavy-duty defamation awards could rapidly change attitudes). Any intervention in this process is most likely to be internal – from senior editorial staff – and based on exceptions rather than routines.
Convergence adds production demands that are medium specific as well as compressing deadlines to the point where output is continuous. And the pace of convergence is growing, particularly among groups with existing assets in different media. Seven West Media in Perth combined West Australian newspaper and Channel 7 television newsrooms, MediaWorks in Auckland combined its radio and television newsrooms and the Herald/Radio Network merger will be complete before the end of the year.
Is page-ready production outsourcing sustainable in an environment that has changed so significantly in the past decade? It was designed to simultaneously produce pages for multiple mastheads but it was not designed to meet the needs of hydra-headed operations. If they are to survive, providers will need to rethink their game plans beyond the downsizing of the New Zealand operation that Pagemasters has already announced.
Perhaps the answer lies not in being part of the production chain but in providing the complete package. There may be a place for a business model in which the entire editorial content is outsourced. AAP is already a gatherer and producer of news. Should it consider its own brand of convergence by integrating Pagemasters into an upgraded multi-media full-service provider? There is something of a precedent: MediaWorks provides the news bulletins of New Zealand’s Prime television channel.
Or will outsourcing go down in history as one of the brave but fleeting endeavours to find a new business model in a media landscape changing at the speed of light? Time, and not much of it, will tell.
NZ a test lab for future
This column appeared in the May 2015 issue of the PANPA Bulletin
Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan’s mantra that the medium is the message has already passed its use-by-date. Publishers produce content across a range of converging platforms and journalists are less likely to define themselves by a single format. How can reporters who file video and audio, as well as written reports, realistically call themselves “print journalists”?
I spent much of my career as a “print journalist” and I guess that many reading this column would wear that label with equal pride. We should not, however, get too sentimental because time has caught up with us, and those entering journalism now come pre-packaged with multimedia skills and a predisposition toward digital access.
Only the technically traumatised attempt to hold back this tide of change and the integration of print and online in the newsroom is now passé – or should be. However, the task of newsroom integration is far from done, with more challenging aspects yet to come.
New Zealand may provide some useful insights into how these challenges can be met and there is no small amount of symbolism in the fact that the lessons will be learned from both print and broadcasting.
Fairfax Media has already embarked on a major restructuring project called News Rewired. It involves the rollout of an Adobe CQ web content management system, adoption of a ‘digital first’ philosophy, reporters ‘writing into the page’ (which it calls ‘publish ready’ content), and a proposed restructuring that will redefine its news management.
APN’s New Zealand operation, NZME., will bring its print, online and radio operations under one roof before the end of the year and will co-locate its New Zealand Herald, NZME news service and radio journalists on the same floor. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a single editorial structure.
Meanwhile, NZME.’s radio rival MediaWorks has combined its television and radio newsrooms and launched a new breakfast show simulcast on TV3 and Radio Live. The new show and the single newsroom are attracting interest because the company has vowed to preserve the strengths of both media rather than following a tendency to privilege the television side of the operation (witness BBC World Service attempts to re-use TV news on radio). It will be a test of whether the strengths of individual forms can be preserved in a multi-media environment.
The challenging aspect of these moves lies in the structural and institutional implications. As Austrian journalist Dieter Bornemann said last year in a study comparing changes by six members of the European Broadcasting Union: “ ‘Sitting together’ does not necessarily lead to ‘working together’.”
Bornemann’s study highlighted a number of common themes:
• Journalists need to be led – not forced –into the changed environment.
• Training is essential but equal skills and talents in all media (the one-man-band) are difficult to attain.
• The right content management system and associated technology are vital.
• News production coordination is significantly more demanding and time-consuming in an integrated environment.
• Professional change management is needed during transition.
Fairfax Media appears to have anticipated these themes in the carefully coordinated rollout of its News Rewired project. It is addressing the leadership, training and content management issues, while the multimedia talents and skills of staff is something that must develop over time.
However, the New Zealand plan incorporates some radical change. The most controversial proposals are ‘publish ready’ production by reporters, and a component of the national and regional restructuring proposal that would abolish at least five newspaper editor positions and replace them with regional editors responsible for generating news across all platforms.
Reporters will have to undergo training and a praise-worthy form of accreditation before they are allowed to assemble their own words, pictures and video for Fairfax’s websites and content will be limited to material that is ‘not legally risky’. However, quality issues won’t disappear overnight and it is one of the cruel realities of editorial life that the story with the lethal snakebite is the one you did not anticipate. It is not a system without risk but there is already some evidence of reporters honing their multimedia skills.
In principle, the editorial restructuring proposal – which incorporates new national roles (such as national sports editor) as well as regional change – is worthy recognition of the need for structures that reflect the multi-platform focus and sends a signal to staff that their thinking also needs to change. The regional component, however, appears to go further than similar restructuring in the group’s Australian operation. The risk lies in how it will be perceived by residents in provincial centres who have seen the editor of their regional newspaper as a standard bearer for the town and region. Time will tell whether locals feel short-changed when the newly created regional editor’s attention is to be divided between the regional newspaper and responsibility for feeding into the national platforms operated by Fairfax.
Yet the potential rewards outweigh the risks in integration on the scale Fairfax has initiated and NZME. also stands on the brink of potential innovative change. It will be well worth watching that space
Crossing the public interest divide
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin March 2015
The destruction of presidential hopeful Gary Hart in what became known as the Monkey Business Affair is a 27-year-old American political scandal that most of us had consigned to history as a momentary episode with little or no enduring significance.
Now political columnist Matt Bai’s new book All the truth is out: The week politics went tabloid contends that the 1987 scandal in fact represented a turning point in political coverage, a watershed moment after which the news media determined that aspirants and holders of high office had no right to privacy where moral issues were concerned. Hart’s extra-marital affair (the consummation of which is ‘unproven’) with an attractive blonde called Donna Rice was judged a matter of abiding public interest and its exposure ended his chances of presidential nomination.
The public scandal stood in stark contrast to President John F. Kennedy’s multiple liaisons that had gone unreported at a time when journalists were expected to turn a blind eye to politicians’ private affairs. Of course, it had not always been so. The 1884 presidential campaign between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland saw newspapers trading claims of not only corruption but also illegitimate children and shotgun weddings. The ‘blind eye’ was a product of the determination by media to rid themselves of muckraker odium by projecting an image of a responsible press.
Bai says that during and after Monkey Business (editors thought Monkey Business – the boat on which the liaison took place – was a gift from heaven) the media convinced themselves that they were not interested in politicians’ sex lives but in their judgement. However, he adds that this requires “an acrobatic contortion of logic” because carrying on an illicit affair in private was not necessarily stupid or self-destructive. After all, lots of people – and I would include journalists – do it.
Internationally, the watershed moment is not a fixed point in time. Press speculation about Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi and Robert Muldoon’s accusations of homosexual activity made against a New Zealand Labour MP in the 1970s marked boundary shifts in Australia and New Zealand. Since then editors regularly have been faced with deciding whether or not to publish stories on public figures that straddle the public-private line. And increasingly they decide to print.
A former associate editor at The Age, Dr Denis Muller, in Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age published last year says the line is conventionally drawn at the place where private conduct or relationships begin to impinge on the person’s public duties. Sometimes that point is self-evident as in the cases of Liberal politicians who admitted claiming accommodation allowances for affairs in the 1990s. On other occasions it is literally a line call.
When I put down Bai’s book I began to wonder how often my justifications of editorial decisions on the private lives of public figures and their families may have been “acrobatic contortions of logic”.
I recalled an occasion where I published a young man’s cannabis conviction on the basis that his father was an MP who had campaigned against smoking (and who subsequently called for marijuana to be decriminalised). Was that flimsy logic?
A former colleague and I remain divided on my decision to spike a story that would have revealed, more than a decade after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, that a political candidate had a conviction under the old law. My colleague took the view that voters had a right to know he had a criminal conviction while I believed the conviction was redundant, had no significance in relation to his intended role, and could undermine years of civic contributions. There are arguments for both viewpoints, so which of us was right?
Were current New Zealand editors right to splash coverage of the son of the Maori King being discharged without conviction on charges that would otherwise not merit a paragraph? In that case, I think the decision to publish was right because the discharge was based on the effect it might have to his right to accession and was later overturned on appeal. The real judgement call was on how to play the story.
Editors need to ask themselves tough questions to ensure that their justification for the decision to publish the private affairs of public figures is not self-serving acrobatics to arrest that circulation slide irrespective of consequence.
At the core of those tough questions is the manner and degree to which, to paraphrase Denis Muller, the situation affects a public person’s ability to do the job the community would expect. In the case of sex-for-favours the answers are self-evident but if an editor clutches at the convenient “judgement” rationale, she or he should ask: How do these private decisions reflect the public figure’s judgement on public issues and, if it is a moral judgement (say, cheating on a spouse), should the public figure be judged on standards that I, as editor, do not apply elsewhere? Lurking in the background will be the matter of proportionality: Does the effect of disclosure far outweigh the indiscretion?
Maybe if those questions had been rigorously traversed Gary Hart would have had a crack at the presidency after all. Or maybe the world had already changed and declared open season on public figures to satisfy its need to be entertained.
Bloggers dive into a dark pool
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin November 2014
Grub Street was the warren in eighteenth century London where gentlemen and scoundrels could get hacks to write to order for a price.
The street no longer exists but hacks continue to ply their trade like the Hackney Cab from which they derived their name. Like the London Taxi, they are the equivalent of a horse for hire.
Corporate public relations have brought a level of legitimacy to the practice and, in the 21st century, we accept this form of writing-to-order as part of the media landscape. Ironically, it is a trade that is no longer the last resort of the unsuccessful and impoverished journalist but the place to which talent is siphoned off by the lure of salaries that news media struggle or fail to match.
In the United States public relations specialists now outnumber reporters 5:1 and in our part of the world any newsroom that denies a reliance on media releases as a primary source is deluding itself. It’s a situation that has had to be accommodated by a news industry under unprecedented financial pressure.
Far less palatable, however, are clandestine payments by PR specialists to third parties to throw a cloak over the real source of a story – the hack’s hack.
In the lead-up to the New Zealand general election, investigative journalist Nicky Hager published a book called Dirty Politics that was based in large part on hacked emails to and from political blogger Cameron Slater. Subsequently the unnamed hacker, who called himself Rawshark (a play on Rorschach, the uncompromising vigilante in Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel), released emails directly to mainstream media outlets.
While the major thrust of the book was political, there have also been allegations that Slater’s Whale Oil blog was involved in a cash-for-comment relationship with at least one PR specialist by which material would be supplied but published under Slater’s name. Slater denies accepting money but the New Zealand Herald’s media writer, John Drinnan, said: “Public relations people appear to have written posts that were published as editorial, and the latest dump of purported messages [hacked emails] also suggests a cost structure for people wanting to appear on the blog”.
If the Whale Oil blog had an audience limited to a handful of political fellow travellers, few would care. However, Slater has links to the ruling National Party – one consequence of Dirty Politics was the resignation of Justice Minister Judith Collins – and has dropped bomb-shells such as the Auckland mayor’s extra-marital affair. His blog has become a source for mainstream media (although those organisations have been quick to distance themselves from Slater and his blog, denying that they relied on him for information).
Add to that his attack dog mentality and eschewing of many of the mainstream media’s self-imposed restraints, and Mr Slater and his blog could be seen as an ideal venue for forms of ‘black’ PR that leave no fingerprints.
Reporters can, and should, check the content of media releases. But how do they determine whether the contents of a blog are the honestly held views of the blogger or a commercial arrangement with an anonymous figure who is, himself, being paid to shoot from behind a rock?
The only safe way is to seek independent verification of any claims made by a blogger and to hold off publishing until that is done. However, bloggers are now seen as direct sources of news – as in the revelations of Mayor Len Brown’s affair – and their views are given the same status as newspaper analysts in an environment where ‘comment’ becomes ‘news’ when it is republished.
Any bloggers accepting payment for publishing the views of others as their own will inevitably lose what trust media might have placed in them, as will any PR specialist using the tactic – if they are found out. And it is a very large ‘if’. If the allegations against the New Zealand blogger and his associates prove correct, and if journalists were found to have acted on that information, would we have even known about it if an email hacker had not broken the law?
The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand has a code of ethics that requires members to “avoid deceptive practices” but not all PR specialists are members of the organisation, rendering the threat of expulsion largely ineffectual. And anyway, one might argue that there is no deception if a blogger chooses by agreement to claim submitted material as his own. A code is a thin defence.
This is not a minor matter. The allegations in New Zealand related to associations with lobby groups such as the liquor, grocery and tobacco industries. There were further allegations involving attacks on investigations into a finance company that failed owing $NZ553 million.
Irrespective of whether or not they are proven, these claims highlight a trap into which it is all too easy to fall. Journalists paying the slightest attention to social media must ask themselves a simple question: “Who stands to benefit from this?” It might cast the blog, post or tweet is a different light.
Media studies no replacement for training
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin August 2014
Before you go closing all those university journalism courses, spare a thought for the future.
What future, you ask? The Australian federal government is determined to reduce communication course subsidies at research-led universities in favour of vocationally-oriented private institutions and the New Zealand government is preoccupied with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at the expense of arts and social sciences.
The industry itself has long preferred trade training to the pointy-headed ruminations of critics with too much time on their hands. The future, some might think, will be better served if training sticks to knit-one-purl-one – with digital knitting needles of course – rather than deconstructive (or destructive) studies of journalism that reveal its faults and inadequacies.
Dollar-driven decisions with a short-term focus have been leading this particular debate. Deficit-burdened governments are prioritising education spending, while companies with a heavy emphasis on newspapers are facing cash crises and an immediate need to transition to digital businesses. Those businesses need keen, sharp young digital natives versed in both the principles of journalism and the technical skills to practice it on multiple platforms. I can’t argue with that.
Training and education do not, however, have only short-term purposes. Yes, they provide the wherewithal to gain entry into the industry but that is, both literally and figuratively, only the starting point. They shape the workforce and influence increasingly senior decision-making in decades to come.
I entered journalism in New Zealand at a time when university graduates were in a distinct minority, journalism degrees were something in the future, and the newsroom was populated with people moulded by diverse backgrounds and life experiences that included the horrors of war. All had learnt their craft ‘on the job’. So did I, beginning with mentoring by a crusty bugger called Bill Niland whose down to earth attitudes were honed on the less-fashionable streets of Sydney. We were the breed of journalist who influenced newspaper editorial practice in Australia and New Zealand for decades that were characterised more by stability than change.
Contrast that with today’s newsrooms where journalism degrees are the norm, digital expertise is prized and change is ever-present. We now have the best-educated newsrooms in history and the tertiary sector is introducing a new breed to the ranks of professional journalism. However, there is an elephant in the room: How will professional journalism be defined and practiced even a decade from now?
That is the question that should be driving the education debate and we will need some blunt answers to further questions that flow from it. For example, will we need 15 tertiary institutions in Australia offering undergraduate journalism degrees? Will we need 10 journalism schools offering journalism diplomas or undergraduate degrees in New Zealand, which has a population smaller than Sydney?
No doubt the industry would prefer vocationally oriented institutions to teach the enduring principles and core practices of journalism to prospective entry-level staff but how many of those can even the wider media industry absorb each year? If employers give preference to vocational college students, should so many research-led universities be offering undergraduate courses?
There is room for rationalisation but not the use of blunt instruments. Careful thought needs to be given to which institutions – and not simply what type of institution – are best placed to meet a particular need.
Vocational courses for school-leavers have their place but credibility and analytical expertise will differentiate professional journalism within the burgeoning communication labyrinth of the future. This will require even more graduates with skills and knowledge in other disciplines who have been taught also to be journalists. So research universities might offer only postgraduate courses in journalism tailored to this need or collaborate with vocational institutions.
The fundamental questions about the future of professional journalism could not only be answered but shaped by cross-disciplinary research into the future of communication. Media or journalism studies will not, in isolation, find the answers. At a rough guess, it will require the combined thinking of teachers and students in at least science, engineering, economics, business, sociology, psychology, philosophy, politics…plus journalism and media studies. In other words, some universities need to concentrate their efforts in high-end postgraduate research centres. By drawing together diverse skills and knowledge they may, for example, be able to tell us what lies beyond smartphone and tablet apps.
That part of the tertiary sector would contribute more to journalism training by studying its future than by deconstructing its past and present. The industry needs people who are equipped not only to navigate successfully their first day in the newsroom but also the ability to still be there when today’s unknown becomes tomorrow’s reality.
For all that, I also have a sneaking suspicion we could do with a few more crusty buggers who can teach you to spell Woolloomooloo.
Social media maelstrom we invited upon ourselves
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin June 2014.
Apart from receiving cyanide through the post, I can recall only one death threat made against me as a journalist.
I don’t recall too many downright abusive letters although plenty of readers took issue with stories I wrote or for which I took responsibility as an editor. I was lucky because I did my tour of duty in the days when letter writers were required to sign their correspondence and before social media unleashed a tidal wave of cowardly anonymous invective.
Social media abuse was brought into sharp focus by the trans-Tasman celebrity Charlotte Dawson, both before and after she was found dead – an apparent suicide – in her Sydney apartment. The role it played in her deteriorating mental health occupied countless columns in newspapers and magazines and an equal amount of airtime and online comment. It also led journalists on both sides of the Ditch to reflect on the fact that they, too, were subjected to deeply personal social media scorn characterised by both intemperance and anonymity.
One New Zealand columnist, reflecting constructively on Dawson’s death and the problems of aging, opened herself to a volume of vitriol that she described as “excruciating” – and she didn’t read the worst of it. She admitted that she had been unable to sleep and found it a “struggle to hold myself together”.
Another columnist who suggested that the Winter Olympics were “an expensive ski holiday” for Kiwi athletes attracted 183 comments to the website version of her opinion piece before the thread was closed off. Some supported her views, many didn’t and were often abusive but they paled alongside what she had to endure on Twitter. A fight-back column headed When did free speech become an F-word? listed in abbreviated form some of the obscenities thrown at her in their totality by invariably anonymous tweeters with a rudimentary grasp of their native English. ‘Whore’ was the mildest insult thrown at her and she listed several conjunctive uses of the C-word. Female journalists are particularly susceptible to obscene references to anatomy.
Online abuse is not a problem limited to Australasia. The University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. is in the midst of a survey on abuse of journalists — generated by “plenty of anecdotal evidence” – and it is already indicating that relentless online abuse is taking its toll.
All of which leads me to a question: What duty of care do employers owe their journalists in dealing with seriously abusive social media?
The obvious response might be to wring hands, abhor the depths to which sociopathic tweeters and Facebook ‘friends’ descend, but admit that nothing can be done to bring order and accountability to social media where trolls exist in greater numbers than in Lord of the Rings. Added to that would be the unfortunate reality that control of the digital environment has as many dangers for legitimate rights of free speech as an anarchic environment does for the vulnerable. The duty of care would, in that light, be to tell journalists they just have to toughen up.
Unfortunately, not everyone in a newsroom is a Clark Kent or a Gina Hardfaced Bitch. Editors must assume that some members of their staff will be vulnerable to the effects of online abuse. They must also accept that the marketing departments of their newspapers have encouraged reporters actively to engage in social media exchanges with readers. Publishers have exposed reporters to ‘social interaction’ by publishing their hashtags in print and online, and by inviting comments on websites and Facebook pages. Their duty of care must extend beyond a general sticks-and-stones message.
Most newspapers have established rules for reader contributions that, if observed, would prevent issues arising. However, website comment threads and Facebook entries are either inadequately moderated or the rules loosely interpreted to prevent accusations of ‘censorship’. Twitter, by its very nature, is an unmoderated environment in which those carefully written and eminently fair rules count for absolutely nothing.
The newspaper industry needs to take a series of collective actions but the initiative would have greater impact if all sections of the media combined in a unified campaign. Journalists are vulnerable to this abuse irrespective of the media in which they work.
The duty of care owed to them requires the following:
- Prominently published and unequivocal statements that personal abuse of writers will not be tolerated.
- Active moderation of comment threads and Facebook pages (including automated keyword searches to identify abusive posts) with immediate and un-notified removal of offensive comments.
- Temporary or permanent suspension of staff Facebook and Twitter accounts when a writer is subjected to persistent abuse.
- Internal systems for monitoring and reporting extreme forms of social media abuse, with access to counselling for staff who request it.
It is too late to simply shut down the various forms of reader participation. I did that in the early days of our newspaper’s website when juveniles used it as an electronic toilet wall but we must recognise there is now a legitimate expectation of participation. It is important not to over-react but to deal decisively with real threats when they arise. That is why the cyanide letter was referred to the police but the other death threat wasn’t taken seriously. It was written in crayon.
i-Age brings odd partnerships
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin March 2014
In the days before childhood was sterilised by Health and Safety we amused ourselves by chasing drops of mercury around the floor of our school science laboratory. Today we chase equally elusive definitions of journalism and the public interest.
In part, we do so to reassure ourselves of continuing relevance in the i-age – internet, iPhone, iPad and the next game-changing i-device. We also do it because digital hordes are beating at the gates, demanding to be recognised because journalists have something they want.
The precious thing that journalists possess – and ‘citizen journalists’ and bloggers want – is recognition in law, or the reporter’s privilege. This is why external pressure is being applied in an attempt to redefine journalism to extend it beyond the professional, institutional definition that newspaper editorial staff traditionally have used to describe their vocation.
Australian state legislators have held to that narrow description but, thanks to the Greens, the Australian Federal Parliament opened the gates in 2011 when an amendment to the Evidence Act gave bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ the same shield that protected reporters from revealing confidential sources. It is a ‘rebuttable presumption’ that starts from the premise that confidential sources should be protected in the public interest but adds a caveat that a judge has the power to sweep it aside and require disclosure.
The same ‘rebuttable presumption’ exists in the New Zealand Evidence Act – on which the Federal law was based (until the Greens had their way) – but Section 68 is headed “Protection of journalists’ sources” and ‘journalist’ is defined as “a person who in the normal course of that person’s work may be given information by an informant in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium” (which is defined as a means of disseminating news and observations on news). So it might seem reasonable to believe that there was another presumption: protection of journalists’ sources was confined to journalists.
However, late last year that presumption was tested by a blogger named Cameron Slater, whose Whale Oil blog had gained notoriety over breaches of name suppression orders, but which had also revealed several public scandals, not least the two-year extra-marital affair of Auckland’s mayor, Len Brown.
Slater had claimed the reporter’s privilege against revealing a source while defending a defamation action. However, a judge ruled that his blog was not a news medium and, as a result, he was not entitled to use of the shield law. Slater indicated an intention to appeal.
Fairfax’s Southland Times in an editorial described Slater as “like one of those relatives that you don’t get to choose” but both Fairfax and APN titles acknowledged that he did, indeed, have a right to claim protection against revealing his source. APN’s New Zealand Herald said news comes in many and varied forms “and the courts should recognise it when they see it”, while The Press in Christchurch noted Whale Oil had more than one million visitors a month and had broken stories “taken up with gusto by other media”.
Is it cut and dried? Was the Federal Parliament right to include bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ in its shield law and was the New South Wales Attorney-General wrong in telling Canberra last June to turn back the clock and align that law with tighter state legislation?
No, it is not cut and dried. As American journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil said in Blur (their 2010 book on the information age): “…blogs are like muffins. They are one shape, but the batter that goes into it might run the gamut from chocolate cake to bran”. Slater may carry enough genuine news within his often outrageous outpourings to cross an ill-defined line into journalistic legitimacy but the vast majority of bloggers do not. Some are neither chocolate cake nor bran but a mix of malevolence, prejudice and discharge from the bowels.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to determine which bloggers should be entitled to the shield and which should not. We need only apply the legal principle set out by American jurist Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld a century ago. His analysis of rights stated that it was a correlative concept and should always be matched by a duty. In this case, anyone claiming the right to protection against revealing sources should accept a duty to be accountable for what they publish.
In a formal sense that requires a willingness to adhere to certain standards and to face a form of censure when those standards are breached. In practical terms, it means signing up to a body such as a press council – or, in New Zealand, the Online Media Standards Authority – that has a code of conduct and a process for handling complaints. The New Zealand Law Commission saw this as the right of passage when it considered media regulation last year.
Bloggers cannot expect to be regarded as the same element – however mercurial – as professionals in the mainstream media if their mantra is “no care, no responsibility and bugger the system”.
The unholy alliance of ‘native advertising’
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin November 2013
Call me old-fashioned but I think there is something sacred about the editorial columns of a newspaper.
I was brought up to believe in the existence of church and state, where the editorial church had a higher calling than the distinctly temporal commercial side of the newspaper.
Like all true believers I had scripture on my side: journalism was to be independent, fair, balanced and free of bias – it was undeniable, accepted wisdom. It was also all of the things that an advertisement did not have to be.
So I have to admit that I approach the subject of ‘sponsored content’ or ‘native advertising’ with some preconceived notions.
One of those notions is that people tend to think that if it looks like a news story, reads like a news story and is placed with other news stories, it’s probably a news story. That preconception is the very thing upon which ‘native advertising’ hopes to capitalize. In a similar way, ‘sponsored content’ has all the characteristics of a news story but it is there only because someone paid for it to be there.
You may be asking: What has changed? For decades newspapers have been running advertising supplements and material labeled under that execrable corruption ‘advertorial’. However, in the case of the former, there has been a clear distinction between this revenue-generating material and the news columns and the latter has been made distinct from editorial content (during my own editorship by requiring that it did not use editorial fonts and was labeled top centre).
‘Sponsored content’ arguably includes relatively innocuous subjects such as travel stories written by journalists on acknowledged ‘freebies’ and reviews of performances for which tickets were provided. However, its current incarnation in North America includes not only sponsored special sections and features but also individual items placed within the news columns. The terms ‘sponsored content’ and ‘native advertising’ have become somewhat interchangeable.
‘Native advertising’ seeks to remove distinctions between advertising and editorial content to, in the words of one pundit, “look more like content you actually want to read.” It had its genesis in the anarchic world of the Internet on sites whose operators either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction between church and state. From there it has migrated to the sites of established news organisations and into print. Forbes magazine promotes its online Brandvoice service that allows marketers to “use the same platform as Forbes writers and contributors” and in March the Washington Post began an online equivalent called Brandconnect. In August the Washington Post began pitching native advertising to print advertisers.
However, in January the venerable magazine The Atlantic attracted widespread criticism for (briefly) carrying on its website a ‘native advertisement’ promoting the Church of Scientology and the Mashable website was investigated by the US marketing industry watchdog for a 20-part technology series that was part of a marketing campaign for a new computer chip. Now the Federal Trade Commission has announced a hearing into sponsored content, concerned about the lack of clear guidelines.
Inevitably this part of the world will have to grapple with the issue that, for now, is generally confined to clearly identified ‘special report’ sections. The need for clear guidelines goes without saying. So, too, does the need for these guidelines to be readily available to readers – online AND in print. There is also a need to draw some demarcation lines between church and state.
I am not so naïve as to think that a holier-than-thou attitude should prevail in these days of dire newspaper economics. New ways of creating revenue have to be found and it is pointless being so restrictive that the decline becomes terminal. That does not, however, prevent us from drawing some deep lines in the sand.
No ‘native advertising’ should appear as individual items in the general news and business columns, in established commentary columns, or on the op-ed pages. No ‘native advertising’ or ‘sponsored content’ should appear in editorial columns unless control of the content is in the hands of editorial staff. Any such material must be clearly labeled (and that includes a prohibition on greying out) – in a manner that leaves the reader in no doubt over the nature of the content. A disclosure statement, setting out any conditions of publication, should appear at the end of the material.
If this appears onerous it is the price that needs to be paid in order to preserve the one thing without which any news organization will die – trust. Readers trust us to ensure that a news story meets all of the basic tenets of journalism and, as US newspaperman Pete Hamill put it, if “acts of trust and faith are absent or shrugged off, the newspaper usually goes downscale and keeps going all the way to the bottom of the grave.”
Filling the void after a death at the top
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin September 2013
There is a safe deposit box in St Petersburg, Florida, containing an envelope to be opened in the event of the untimely death of the chairman and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Times. In it is a sheet of paper on which he has written the name of his nominated successor.
This is unusual on two counts: It is rare for the chief executive of a news media company to be in a position to say who will succeed him or her; and such contingency planning is atypical to say the least.
The right to appoint a successor is the fulfillment of the wishes of Nelson Poynter, who bequeathed his shares in what was the St Petersburg Times in order to endow the institute that would later bear his name. The envelope-in-a-box is a safeguard because Poynter believed “a publication is so individualistic in nature that complete control should be concentrated in an individual” and the best person to decide the right successor to the role was his or her predecessor.
Something else had a bearing on the convention: Nelson Poynter died from a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1978. He had already named his successor but there is still a sense of shock in the Times Publishing Company and the Poynter Institute at the suddenness of his death…and a lesson to be drawn from it. No matter how distasteful the thought, newspaper companies should be mindful that a senior executive could suddenly be pulled from their midst.
A tragic example occurred in June when APN’s New Zealand group advertising director, Andrew McNally, died suddenly at the age of 45. McNally had been recruited from News Ltd in 2012 as one of three new executives charged with helping to re-invigorate the New Zealand Herald publisher’s cross-media and digital strategies. In only 18 months he made a significant impact on both the strategic and operational sides of the business.
Only nine months earlier the chief executive of the Pacific Media Network, Tom Etuata, died from a brain aneurysm. The 46-year-old broadcaster had been an instructor in an Auckland gym and had been described as “super-fit”.
When such sudden losses happen, a company’s first thoughts and actions are for the immediate family of the deceased, followed closely by managing the grief and sense of loss experienced by staff and close associates. In the days following a death these actions are all consuming and unquestionably important. They may be followed by a review of the company’s health monitoring plans to ensure their adequacy
However, there is no disrespect in managements then turning their thoughts to coping with the consequences of a senior executive being taken out of the business equation. Inevitably there will be decisions that had been made but not yet recorded, meetings held but not documented, undertakings given but not communicated elsewhere.
Operational detail can usually be reconstructed from weekly reports, management meetings and emails. Certainly, the numbers in the business equation are now well managed and the frequency of reporting requires daily input and collation. Can the same be said, however, when it comes to the forward-looking aspect of senior management?
Newspapers are expert in gathering knowledge and recording the thoughts and aspirations of others but how good are they at capturing the strategic thinking and aspirational conversations within their own organisations? I suspect that the industry is so preoccupied with its systems for tracking and disseminating other people’s knowledge assets that it pays insufficient attention to its internal needs beyond financial reporting and formal strategic planning. What efforts are made to capture what is in our people’s heads?
First reactions to that question are probably “can’t be done” or “too ephemeral”. Certainly, there is no way in which strategic thinking can be preserved. That is a dynamic, real-time ability to assimilate, analyse and use information in a particular way and it passes with the strategic thinker.
However, in the news media’s Age of Uncertainty, strategic thinkers are expected to project themselves and their organisations into the future and to think long and hard about the paths they should take. It is blue skies imagining that is articulated in random ways and may not be captured by the well documented, splendidly PowerPointed strategic plans that results from some of this thinking. It is important that these other thoughts are shared.
All newspapers need an Omnibus (as in Flanders and Swann’s “big six-wheeler”) Plan that takes account of the undeniable fact that stepping off a kerb can be dangerous. Capturing those strategic thoughts may mean devoting a recorded planning session to “my final memo” or a purposeful directing of coffee conversations that can be translated into diary notes or a culture of thought-sharing or the instituting of a comprehensive knowledge management system.
My Omnibus Plan is contained in a notebook into which I periodically jot the products of a rambling mind. I have given it a title shamelessly stolen from H.G. Wells. It is called The Invisible Man.
Important Note: Time to play the right reform tune
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin June 2013
Finally, someone has got the message that the industry has uttered more times than Helen Reddy in her 1973 hit song.
You know the one. It goes like this:
Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone
Please leave me alone, now leave me alone
Oh leave me alone, please leave me alone, yes leave me
Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone
Please leave me alone, now leave me alone
God leave me along, just leave me alone, oh leave me…
Finkelkstein failed to heed the refrain. So, too, did Leveson. Both enquiries recommended media regulation backed by statute. When the Australian and British governments broadly accepted the recommendations they bought an inevitable fight with the media industries of their respective countries.
It was hardly surprising: The media have been singing the same tune since John Milton wrote his essay against licensing of the press in 1644. No less surprising was the outcome of the latest enquiries. The Gillard government’s attempts have ended in embarrassing retreat and the British coalition government has faced internal rifts and industry opposition to its novel Royal Charter solution to the Leveson Report’s findings.
Into the spotlight at the end of March stepped the New Zealand Law Commission, clutching under it’s arm a weighty ditty entitled The News Media Meets New Media: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age.
Many of the sentiments expressed by Finkelstein and Leveson were also to be found in the report tabled in the New Zealand Parliament. However, among its 386 pages one paragraph stood out in marked contrast to the foundational underpinnings of those documents.
Our preference is for the new standards body to come into existence without any statutory underpinning to that body’s creation. We think it is preferable in the first instance for an independent standards body to be set up without any form of state coercion.
In a rehearsal – an initial working paper 15 months earlier – the Law Commission had recommended the sort of statutory underpinning that would characterise the Australian and British reports when they were published. That recommendation elicited a predictable response from media organisations.
To its credit, the commission team led by New Zealand’s pre-eminent media law authority, Professor John Burrows, dropped that proposal from its final report. A new self-regulating body would take over the news oversight functions of the self-regulating New Zealand Press Council and newly formed Online Media Standards Authority and of the statutory Broadcasting Standards Authority. The only legislation would be an Act of Parliament that would do no more than amend existing laws to recognise the new body. The Broadcasting Act, for example, would be amended to remove news and current affairs programming from the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s oversight.
In so doing it has headed off most of the likely opposition to the reform of media regulation. The loudest discordant notes has come not from media companies but from bloggers who fear they will be forced to adopt similar levels of responsibility as (God forbid!) the mainstream media. That fear is generated by the incentive-based nature of the proposals that would see, for example, access to the press benches of the country’s judicial and government institutions reserved for those who sign up to the new body. This could, of course, smack of licensing. That fear will not be realised, however, so long as anyone who meets the commission’s broad definition of news media is free to join.
Fairfax has been more ready to accept the inevitability of a new regulatory body than has APN although both would like to preserve the Press Council. Broadcasters, on the other hand, would be delighted to be freed, at least in part, from the clutches of the quasi-judicial Broadcasting Standards Authority. For a number of reasons print and broadcast have not been able to sing from the same song sheet on regulatory reform. Existing Press Council coverage of newspaper websites, for example, forced the broadcasters to go it alone in forming the Online Media Standards Authority.
If I have to sing for my supper, I’ll say that the creation of a single body – called the News Media Standards Authority by the commission – is both sensible and inevitable. How can the industry insist on distinctions between airwaves and newsprint when their increasingly important digital offerings invariably include the written word, video and audio? None of the existing bodies has a perfect record or all the answers and to co-opt all media into one of them would create resentment and imperfect hybrid solutions.
Of course, much now depends on how the Key government reacts to the Law Commission’s recommendations. It has been non-committal, saying only that it will consult before responding later in the year, and its recent rejection of the commission’s report on open government is no cause for optimism.
If it is smart, it will hear the message that the commission embraced. If it attempts to legislate media ‘reform’ it will hear, loud and clear, a reworked version of another Helen Reddy hit. Its first line is I am Media, hear me roar.
“Who do our elected politicians serve?”
This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin March 2013
I refer to myself sometimes as a “poacher turned gamekeeper”. It makes the academics, with whom I rub shoulders, feel more comfortable. It also bears some explanation.
As a gamekeeper, I don’t see myself setting mantraps for my former colleagues (although if they get caught red-handed I don’t have too many qualms about dobbing them in). I see the role as looking after the wildlife. And you, my friends, are the wildlife.
I hasten to add that I am not interested in looking after the wildlife in order that some rich bastard can swan in and knock it off. Stocks are so depleted that my mind is fully occupied with conservation and breeding programmes. The hunting party can amuse itself with clay pigeons, which usually take the form of over-hyped, over-priced and under-researched digital projectiles.
The threats to the wildlife are commercial, social and political. In New Zealand last month we detected the spore of a creature well known as a menace to most species of media: the self-serving politician. It revealed itself in the Government’s response to a well-founded and comprehensive review of the Official Information Act.
In 1982 both Australia and New Zealand passed legislation to guarantee that the news media – and society in general – had access to a diet of public information emanating from central government. After 30 years the New Zealand Law Commission believed it was time to review the effectiveness of the Official Information Act and equivalent legislation covering local government. Unsurprisingly it found that much had changed since the legislation was enacted and three decades of operation had revealed numerous shortcomings. It made 137 recommendations for change.
Tim Pankhurst canvassed the principal recommendations in the September issue of the PANPA Bulletin. He acknowledged Justice Minister Judith Collins’ stated commitment to openness and transparency while trying to cut red tape and streamline processes, but concluded by saying “…the test will be whether the commission’s good intentions are still circumvented by belligerent departments and ministers with something to hide”.
He exhibited the traits present in all wildlife with a good survival rate – caution and suspicion – but under-estimated the speed of the attack and the quarter from which it would come. It was launched by Judith Collins herself on behalf of the John Key-led coalition government on February 4 and represented a wide-ranging rejection of the most significant Law Commission recommendations.
- “No” to a completely new Act that took account of technologcal and social change.
- “No” to a new information agency or expanded role for the Office of the Ombudsman.
- “No” to an amalgamation of the legislation covering central and local government.
- “No” to coverage of the administrative functions of Parliament and the Offices of Parliament (Ombudsman, Controller and Auditor-General, and the Commissioner for the Environment).
- “No” to major reform.
It was a perverse response. While the government was unwilling to open its own house to public scrutiny, it was willing to allow that oversight of the administrative functions of the courts. Why open one section of the constitutional estate to the public while claiming what former Law Commission president and prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer called “spurious” reasons for denying public access to any part of the stately home? Likewise, the Government was ready to accept tighter controls on financial and commercial information recommended by the Commission while rejecting significant measures to make other information more accessible.
The opposition Labour Party did itself no credit by backing the Government stand rejecting the Commission’s parliamentary recommendations, cloaking its desire for ongoing secrecy in support for “proactive release” of information that leaves the decision to disclose entirely in the hands of Parliament and its officials.
The Law Commission’s report sought to give substance to generalisations in the legislation that had allowed bureaucrats and politicians to circumvent the presumption of transparency that was embodied in the original Act. It wanted clarity over such presumptions and more explict instructions relating to matters such as the maximum time in which to respond to requests. However, it is all too clear that the rocks behind which elected representatives and state servants can hide are seen as extremely useful obstructions. Sir Geoffrey Palmer accurately summed up the response when he said it was driven by MP’s self-interest.
So the government’s response gives rise to a broader question: Can politicians – particularly those in a unicameral parliamentary system like that of New Zealand – be entrusted with determining the nature and extent of checks on their own power? Those in power, even if they mean to resist it, are subject to the seductive influence of political self-interest. Those in opposition hope one day to be in power and have the same advantages of those they seek to replace. Constitutional safeguards go only so far and the only real defence is to ensure that such displays of self-interest become politically inexpedient.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark once wished (aloud) that I would “stop banging on” about a particular controversy. This is a issue where, for the sake of a healthy democracy, newspapers must keep banging on until self-interest carries greater political risks than change.