“Mainstream” media has (in general) a structural right-wing bias because it (in general) reflects the interests of its owners, who are of course well off. If you have ever felt the need to know who owns the NZ media and pulls its strings, take a look at the latest version of the JMAD NZ media ownership report (pdf), which has a brief summary on RNZ here:
More evidence of unethical alliances
Researchers say there is increasing evidence of what it calls unethical alliances between bloggers, politicians, media and public relations companies. The Journalism, Media and Democracy research centre at AUT University says the boundaries between those groups are blurring. The report highlighted what researchers said were major revelations in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, and said they cast a shadow over long-established media organisations.
Well yes, all of this is now obvious to everyone. Here’s a few snippets from the report itself (pdf):
Key events and trends concerning New Zealand media
• Financialisation of mass media ownership confirmed
• Substantial changes in Fairfax, APN and MediaWorks ownership
• Competition heats up in online television and video markets
• Turbulence at Maori TV
• Blurred lines among politicians, bloggers, journalists and PR practitioners
In 2014, there were six major commercially operating media corporations in New Zealand. These included APN and its New Zealand media arm NZME, Fairfax Media, Sky TV, MediaWorks, TVNZ and Bauer Media. The National Business Review is a privately owned financial newspaper which funds its operations from advertising income and print/digital subscriptions. APN, Fairfax Media, Bauer Media and MediaWorks are all foreign owned media outlets. APN is a trans-Tasman media corporation with Irish media corporation INM and Irish telecom billionaire Denis O’Brien as its substantial shareholders. Fairfax Media is an Australian headquartered media corporation with Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart as its largest shareholder. Bauer Media is a privately owned, global media conglomerate headquartered in Germany. In 2013 the group bought APN’s New Zealand magazines including The Listener. MediaWorks ownership is also in foreign hands as the American private equity group Oaktree Capital is the largest shareholder in the company. Sky TV has been owned by financial institutions since Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited sold its shares in the company in 2013.
In 2014, Stuff was more dominant in the online news sphere than The New Zealand Herald. In September Amazon’s Alexa, which measures internet traffic, ranked stuff.co.nz as the sixth most visited site in New Zealand, and nzherald.co.nz as the seventh most visited site in the country (Alexa, 2014).
In 2014, it was even more evident that New Zealand media companies were under the control of fund management companies and other unlisted financial institutions. In 2014, two financial corporations alone owned 23 per cent of APN’s shares, and four financial institutions held 24 per cent of Fairfax’s shares. Sky TV’s four substantial shareholders were all investment management companies and they held 26 per cent of the company’s shares. In 2014 MediaWorks was owned by five financial firms: one private equity fund, Oaktree Capital, held 43 per cent of the company’s shares.
As the JMAD report in 2013 noted, financialised ownership is worrying because it intensifies corporate focus on revenue streams and profits. This ownership structure has made media organisations more vulnerable to restructuring as the financial owners maximise profits and returns. These profit imperatives were exemplified by Fairfax, as it continued layoffs during 2014, and by APN as the company contemplated a float for its New Zealand media assets. The drive for profit also compelled MediaWorks to introduce increasingly commercial, advertising friendly content for its programmes.
Many journalists noted that “profit-making pressures” had strengthened in the past five years (Hannis et al., 2014). They commented that cost cutting was “undermining the quality of journalism” and that news copy was over reliant upon public relations material (Hannis eta al., 2014). Some respondents were quoted as saying that journalism in New Zealand is “too productivity-driven” (in regard to the number of stories expected per day). Others remarked that journalism had “been captured by trivia” as newsrooms were employing fewer journalists, and that there was pressure “for everyone to be first with something on websites” (Hannis et al., 2014). Clearly, the profit driven culture is felt in most newsrooms. In this context, it is concerning that public service journalism in New Zealand has shrunk as non- commercial television channels such as TVNZ7 have been shut down.
All of that is business as depressingly usual of course. But the report also gets in to territory that is of particular interest to Standardistas:
Political machinations and the blogosphere
The 2013 JMAD New Zealand media ownership report observed that bloggers had gained in prominence and influence in New Zealand as media space became increasingly commercial. Accordingly the report observed that “blogs have started to fill the gap in public interest journalism left by the commercially operated media corporates” (Myllylahti, 2013). The report specifically argued that
increasing commercial pressures combined with financialised media ownership, have created a national media environment where the content is driven by profits, ratings and clicks. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that citizen journalists and bloggers have started to take a more active role in the media domain (Myllylahti, 2013).
After the revelations in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, it appears that blogs are not necessarily a counterweight to commercial media outlets. The capability of blogs to retrieve the principles of public interest journalism became questionable. This report finds increasing evidence of unethical alliances among bloggers, politicians, PR companies and legacy media.
The issues concerning Dirty Politics have been covered extensively elsewhere. This report simply highlights the major revelations; how the politicians try to manipulate news coverage; how corporates and public relation practitioners advance their agendas in the blogosphere; and how blogs can influence news journalists. In the latter context, the Coalition for Better Broadcasting (CBB) observed that the ability of Slater, Judith Collins and David Farrar (a right wing blogger) to exploit mainstream media was due to the fact that “our media is weak, underfunded, highly competitive and almost entirely commercial” (CBB, 2014c).
Hager’s book has cast a shadow over long established media organisations. After the publication of Dirty Politics, Fran O’Sullivan, Jared Savage and David Fisher, journalists working for The New Zealand Herald, came clean about their earlier collaborations with Slater. Jared Savage admitted that “information was shared, there was a bit of “horse trading”, we talked about developments as the story rolled along (Savage, 2014). The paper’s investigative journalist David Fisher admitted in his opinion piece that “Cameron Slater was a contact of mine – Nicky Hager made this clear in Dirty Politics”; before he stopped “dealing with Slater”, he was “speaking to Slater as a contact and source” (Fisher, 2014).
The Dirty Politics fallout, which led to the resignation of Justice Minister Judith Collins, did also damaged Cameron Slater’s the Whale Oil blog alongside the reputation of the wider blogging community. However, the Hard News blogger Russell Brown remarked that “we’re not all like that. The multitude of bloggers, political bloggers included, have no part in this” (Brown, 2014).
I want to pick up on the last point in particular. Permeating this report, and the coverage of it (e.g. RNZ quoted above) is the assumption that all blogs are equal – a blog is a blog is a blog. This is a version of the Nats’ dirty politics spin that “everyone does it” and “Labour has attack blogs” and “The Standard is written by Labour staffers” and so on – these are all distractions, deflections, and lies lies lies.
So it is disappointing to see this report accepting (apart from one quick comment by Russell Brown) the assumption that all blogs are created equal, and that all are tarnished by dirty politics. Bollocks. It makes no more sense than saying that all TV is game shows, that all radio is talkback, or that all websites are porn. Blogs span a rich and interesting spectrum, and the only ones tarnished by dirty politics are the ones that were actively involved – Whale Oil, Kiwiblog, and the (deleted in shame) Asian Invasion.
So – media – how about a little bit more honesty in the coverage of bloggers and blogs eh? And with all due respect to the JMAD team, for your next report, why not get out and talk to some bloggers, find out a bit about what is really going on (and not going on), instead of repeating the media lines that you are supposed to be critiquing?
(As a last point for a lazy Saturday, quoted above “blogs have started to fill the gap in public interest journalism left by the commercially operated media corporates”. Discuss!)