Chris Lynch: Is the state buying off media independence?

Author
Chris Lynch,
Publish Date
Fri, 2 Apr 2021, 9:22AM
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta proudly announced the country has joined the Media Freedom Coalition. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta proudly announced the country has joined the Media Freedom Coalition. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Chris Lynch: Is the state buying off media independence?

Author
Chris Lynch,
Publish Date
Fri, 2 Apr 2021, 9:22AM

OPINION:

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister has proudly announced the country has joined the Media Freedom Coalition "a partnership of countries working to uphold media freedom where it is under threat."

Nanaia Mahuta made the announcement on Twitter, a place where people go to get their political world views cuddled.

Her announcement is a bit rich considering last week, journalist Jenée Tibshraeny exposed the New Zealand Climate Change Commission's decision to cherry-pick journalists to receive its draft report under embargo, hoping for favourable media coverage.

The Commission chair "felt that enabling embargoed access to such a large number of people represented an unacceptable level of risk," according to details outlined in a response to an OIA.

It's a shame journalists are forced to use the Official Information Act to request information that should be freely available.

Thankfully, we have investigative journalists prepared to do a good bit of old fashioned digging.

Covid-19 has made it harder for reporters to do their job. It's unconventional for journalists to parrot Government messaging, but in the case of the pandemic, they were left with no choice.

About this time last year, the Prime Minister told reporters "we will continue to be your single source of truth and we will provide information frequently. We will share everything we can. Everything else you see [take with] a grain of salt." Jacinda Ardern was referring to social media rumours of more lockdowns.

It's reassuring to see former TV investigative journalists finding refuge at online outlets, who ironically share their content to some of the bigger media players.

It's a funny old business the news media. Like any industry, it has its ups and downs.

Who would have thought New Zealand's two network channels would cancel their long-running current affair shows in favour of programmes hosted by comedians and presenters more interested in building their personal profile.

I'm unconvinced populating commercial news channels with public radio content is necessary a good thing for democracy. It's becoming the norm to see public radio journalism popping up on commercial news sites

RNZ's objectives have changed, with a drive to ensure the publicly funded organisation's news appears on as many platforms as possible. But the duplication of stories across New Zealand's media landscape is now bordering on the ridiculous.

More concerning is the Government's decision to fund "public interest news and journalism" to the tune of $55 million.

NZ on Air is advertising a new role for a "head of journalism".

That person will presumably be the one dishing out the cash to media companies. The Government has an arms' length approach to decisions made by the agency, but that will become increasingly tricky.

In a report into NZ on Air, author Hal Crawford (former head of TV3 news) noted the absence of any audience engagement data by NZ On Air.

Former political editor for TV3 Stephen Parker called it a serious omission, saying poor transparency and poor metrics are fatal to understanding taxpayers' spend on content.

To its credit NZ on Air has funded the Local Democracy Reporting programme, employing journalists to cover local council issues, a news round often ditched in favour of the more salacious trappings of courtroom drama.

Private news companies have become an easy target for critics who shout "clickbait". But it's often the clickbait that funds investigative stories.

Some media see themselves as the influencers of social change, with one outlet placing themselves in the middle of the ongoing culture wars, by discrediting biological reality.

Let's hope their ideas of grandeur don't see them taking advantage of taxpayer cash to support their moral crusades based on ideology.

In the words of George Orwell, "journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations."