The government is simultaneously grappling with the Covid, economic and housing crises, but its failure to act urgently and boldly on the crisis in our Fourth Estate may have the most damaging longer-term effect.
Bernard Hickey, one of Aotearoa’s foremost newsmen and media innovators, has lashed out at Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi, together with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for their fiddling-while-Rome-burns response to an industry in meltdown.
While Covid and economic collapse have been staved off, news start-ups like Newsroom and TheSpinoff, together with print media, are precariously positioned, as already waning pre-Covid advertising has drastically plunged since the pandemic struck. NZME (NZ Herald) is reduced to hacking into its reporting backbone, having already slashed the body more severely than Monty Python’s Black Knight, while Stuff’s sale for just $1 speaks for itself.
NZME’s three-year rescue plan announced this month involves cutting historic mastheads The Northern Advocate, Hawke’s Bay Today, Rotorua Daily Post, Bay of Plenty Times and Whanganui Chronicle, replacing them with regional names ending in ‘Herald”, and filling them with generic content.
Faafoi has not done nothing. But his $50m “triage” media rescue package announced in April was almost entirely directed at broadcast media while NZ First pulled the handbrake on his planned second, albeit lesser, package aimed at other media.
In a podcast with The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive, Hickey castigated the government’s dealings with RNZ, Stuff, NZME, and the small independents like Newsroom.
He said he despairs at the lack of support for public-good journalism.
During the “biggest health crisis in our lifetime”, when the media has played a vital supportive role, the government has provided more assistance to horse racing than to the Fourth Estate, which is so crucial to any democracy, he said.
In his sometimes-bitter explanation of why he quit Newsroom (though still remaining a shareholder), Hickey said he came to the realisation “that this government does not care a jot about the public good created by the commercially run news media”.
The media was withering while this government dithers about delivering support to the non-broadcasting media.
However, a media academic and former editor of one of the doomed NZME mastheads, who did not wish to be named, told me that traditional media didn’t deserve rescuing as they had invariably wielded their power injudiciously and, as “press barons”, skewed news to favour the Right.
They had also arrogantly ignored the threat of the internet.
Hickey clearly still sees merit in both old and new media, although without intervention, he can’t see a way forward for commercial media, particularly, start-ups, for doing public-good journalism at scale.
And state broadcasters are faring little better. Far from fulfilling the 2017 promise of an extra $38m annual grant for RNZ, the state-owned broadcaster is actually having its funding cut despite the outstanding job it has done throughout the Covid crisis.
Faafoi’s spokesman says the minister is “not ignorant of the urgency of the situation for media” but having talked to some media bosses, believes a degree of stability had returned.
“Their reflection is that things are not where they were 12 months ago and probably won’t get back to that, but they are not as bad as these types of organisations were thinking that they would be.”
Faafoi will likely reprise Part 2 of his media rescue package in the May budget but it is unlikely to placate Hickey and others. It will be “in the millions” spread over three or four years, funded via NZ On Air, and would be based on the pilot local journalism model set up by Faafoi early in his tenure.
“It wouldn’t be money that would go into the general coffers of a media company’s overall running costs. It would have to be targeted to specifically to the local content they are producing.”
Hickey said Labour has merely following the pattern of all parties that in opposition love the media and hate it when in government.
He is bitter Ardern accepted the backing of mainstream media to corral the “team of five million” behind her government’s policies while failing to grasp that she, or others, may need such support for future crises.
“The message that went to the public (from our media) was clear, uncontested, essentially saying this was the right thing to do despite knowing the lockdown would damage, possibly even destroy, their organisations.
“In other countries you have a bunch of media saying dumb things, weaponizing and enabling the misinformation that bubbles up from the Facebookisphere and those countries aren’t as cohesive, aren’t as behind the message.”
Hickey believes Ardern’s government has taken that all for granted.
“They just took it took in a free ride away, and walked off with it.”
However, Faafoi’s spokesman said there is no correlation between how the media reported a major event and the need for government to prop them up.
Hickey’s other beef is that Ardern has, despite the concern she expressed about the role played by social media in the Christchurch massacre, hitched her wagon firmly to Facebook, despite calling it out over the live streaming of the massacre and its subsequent failure to reform.
Hickey said that last year she aggressively pushed for big tech and Facebook to do the right thing after the Christchurch Call, “but increasingly, as the months have gone on, it has become clear to me she sees Facebook as a fantastic way to reach her audience and to reach potential voters – to essentially go around the news”.
“It’s time for someone to call out the Prime Minister and her attitude towards big tech and Facebook, in particular. “
His concern, though, is that Ardern doesn’t give a damn about traditional media.
“In the midst of the crisis, I asked her what she would do about Stuff potentially shutting down and her answer was: ‘it’s not really my issue. They are a commercial organisation’.”
(Simon Louisson is a former journalist who worked for Reuters [including with Bernard Hickey], the New Zealand Press Association, and The Wall Street Journal among others and worked two stints for the Green Party as a media and political adviser).