StuffME merger a sideshow

The merger of Fairfax and NZME looks to have stalled. The opponents of the merger said that having one owner of newspapers in the country would put too much power in one company’s hands, ultimately risking public interest journalism. Meanwhile Fairfax and NZME argued that without merger newspapers will close, ultimately risking public interest journalism.

The fact is that irrespective of the merger, our media landscape is changing. We need to deal with the underlying issues below that.

With the shift to online media from print and television, advertising revenues have shrunk and largely been snaffled by large overseas corporates (especially Google and Facebook). Combined with heightened competition for the public’s attention (clickbait), this has led to fewer resources being devoted to true public interest journalism.

Public interest journalism is a public good; media plays a crucial role in a democracy to keep the public informed and politicians honest. Up until now we have largely relied on the goodwill of private companies to produce this public interest journalism. This private sector model has been aided by Radio New Zealand and in the past the TVNZ charter and TV7 to keep everyone honest.

What is happening now is that the private sector is withdrawing from providing this public good and instead drifting toward agenda-driven “news” that advertising and corporate ownership of media encourages. The challenge ahead from this degradation of serving the public interest requires a much deeper response than protecting commercial bottom lines via merging media companies. The Opportunities Party wants to see two changes to deal with these issues.

Firstly, just to ensure that local media companies are not being unfairly treated, we have to make sure the likes of Facebook and Google are paying their fair share of tax. TOP’s Tax Reform will do this. Some are calling for these companies to contribute to the creation of the content that runs through their channels, but that discussion confuses content with distribution. Without doubt if it were commercially attractive they would. But of course that won’t assure independence necessarily.

The other proposal we have made is that public money needs to be invested in public interest journalism. The question is where would this money come from?

TOP’s proposal is to sell Television New Zealand (TVNZ, which is now a commercial operation and like Fairfax and NZME their profits are under pressure) and use the proceeds to set up a Public Journalism Fund as part of NZ on Air. The existing Platinum Fund money spent on Q&A and The Nation would be folded into this. Radio New Zealand will be able to compete for this funding alongside other platforms. 

The ubiquity of online channels and their increasing uptake by consumers ensures the concerns from the Commerce Commission  around competition are a second order, or even irrelevant issue.

It is the future of independent journalism that holds the public interest first and foremost that is the most important issue around the media sector. To the extent their news and current affairs coverage is driven by the owners’ or advertisers’ political preferences, then they of course are part propaganda anyway. The only true competition they will face is from news, current affairs and investigative journalism that is ethical, rather than propaganda passing off as ethical.

On that front there are some brave online efforts being pursued by journalists directly but Radio NZ remains the only remaining source of signifiance. Its protection for the sake of democracy in New Zealand is vital.