Who Will Protect Us From Media Power Now?

Written By: - Date published: 6:28 pm, April 26th, 2022 - 9 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, internet, Media, Politics, radio, twitter, uncategorized - Tags:

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With RNZ and TVNZ now in full merger mode, we have yet another untested state megalith upon us. But where is the power that will hold it to account?

This government has an unnerving ability to form massive entities that have negligible Ministerial oversight or indeed any influence by the public.

Which brings us by way of illustration to Twitter. Twitter has emerged to be one of the most important participatory tools left to citizens in any free country but especially in the English-speaking ones. Elon Musk is gathering his investors to simply buy out Twitter. There is little state regulatory say in the matter, since it stems way back when President Clinton was enabling this huge social media industry to boom by putting into force the Communications Decency Act and in particular Section 230.

Section 230 laid the groundwork for much of the internet we know today. In a nutshell, Section 230 provides that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” the effect being that social media platforms are largely protected from legal liability arising from content published by users. It is from under that shield that the social media evolutionary explosion occurred.

Because social media has damaged so many candidates and distended political power so much, there is a surprising lack of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats to remove the power that Section 230 has given to social media giants.

To find a time when monolith-smashing regulation was proposed and put into action in New Zealand, we have to go back to 2006-7 and the breakup of the Telecom near-monopoly of broadband. A very strong set of regulatory and commercial controls was imposed upon Telecom – leading to the quick departure of CEO Theresa Gattung and Chair Roderick Deane. From that point and from the successor National governments’ broadband fibre rollout, New Zealand has seen a simply massive boom in this entire digital tech industry.

In the Cabinet paper for the RNZ-TVNZ merger there was significant emphasis put on editorial independence by setting up a Crown entity to hold it which had strong independence. The last time government formed a powerful entity with this much independence was in NZ SuperFund and its Guardians. Through 2017-18 NZSuper was responsible for actively conspiring against multiple government Departments in its light rail proposal into an attack on NZ’s largest-ever procurement process, which brought down a senior Cabinet minister Phil Twyford and set the project back at least a decade if not forever. So there is dangerous form in generating powerful entities with almost no Ministerial oversight at all.

So now let’s do a comparison. In 2020 the ex-President Trump advisor Steve Bannon was banned from Twitter for calling for the beheadings of several people including Dr Anthony Fauci. Whereas on Facebook Mr Zuckerberg felt that Bannon’s comments weren’t enough to block him. This is what you get when publication decisions are entirely privatised. There is neither common measure nor common public force that ensures justice is evenly weighed from one publication judgement to the other.

Let’s say then that Mike Hosking becomes Editor In Chief of news at the new entity, with a façade of two newsdesks for radio and tv. His editorial line becomes that Ardern is a charming big-state neo-NAZI – not much of a stretch. Exactly who in either the regulatory or political order could stop him? Indeed if Mike Hosking in that position took it upon himself to target you and your family, what in reality could you do about it?

The Broadcasting Standards Authority has neither the speed nor the power to stop it. That power lies in reality nowhere. Insofar as the legislation proposes a Charter for the new entity, it appears to be more an internal guideline for unifying corporate culture rather than a standards enforcement mechanism.

The current thinking is for a permissive set of high level purposes which focuses on Maori representation, as well as stating as it should  deliver “reliable, accurate, comprehensive, impartial, and balanced regional, national, and international news and information.” Such Charter reporting requirements will simply be stuck in the Annual Report, overseen by Treasury and Manatu (MCH), and otherwise continue on their merry way.

It may seem like forming massive new public entities without strong regulators is the perfect way to express political will deep into the long term without nasty distractions like elections, but then that’s an oligarchy not a democracy. When the state is unregulated, at some point it will turn its eye to you. And then you are royally screwed and there’s not a force or regulator you can turn to: they are the media. Media power is already incredibly concentrated here.

This follows an unnerving pattern within this government.

First there’s health centralisation, with the eradication of local representation and elections, and the eradication of published performance reporting that we used to get in newspapers.

Then there’s water, with the removal of democratic oversight right across the country, and an untested regulatory arrangement.

Then there’s carbon and climate change mitigation, which is being run by a most complex system of carbon trading that only a few elite players in fuel and electricity generators will have much part in its pricing and operation.

And now there’s media, with the merger of RNZ and TVNZ now well underway.

Ordinary citizens are being disempowered in massive areas of their lives and participative democracy is actively being constrained into tighter and tighter areas of New Zealand.

We do not want to get to the point where an elite class of unelected Board members of public entities has so much more power than any power a democracy can muster. With this merger Kiwiblog, The Standard, Greater Auckland et al become far more important for actual citizens to comment and share because we are the last centres of largely un-corporatised speech.

The formation of this powerful new public media entity demands the formation of an even more powerful regulator.

9 comments on “Who Will Protect Us From Media Power Now? ”

  1. Anne 1

    "But where is the power that will hold it to account?"

    Just an updated version of what we had for some 2 to 3 decades. The umbrella body was called the NZ Broadcasting Corporation – NZBC for short. It worked well. I worked at AKTV2 for some 4 to 5 years in the mid to late 1960s. The good thing about it: staff could move from radio to television or vice versa. As an audio operator it meant I could do both but I chose to stay with television.

    And I might add… the political segments/debates etc. were, with a few exceptions, fairer and more substantive than what we currently see and hear.

    In short I have no problem with the merger. Contrary to what you think Ad, I think it will be for the betterment of both. It is unlikely that the Mike Hoskings or Barry Sopers of this world would get anywhere near as far up the ladder under such a merger. Moderation in all things would see to that.

  2. AB 2

    Your Hosking scenario – essentially the co-opting of state power by private power via the election of a National/ACT government – is more than a theoretical possibility. It is one foundation of actually existing oligarchic governments. So yes, a strong regulator is required, and one with jurisdiction not only over state media, but over private media as well.

  3. Dennis Frank 3

    Well the answer to your question seems to lie here: https://www.mediacouncil.org.nz/principles/

    The Media Council’s scope applies to published material in newspapers, magazines and their websites, including audio and video streams, as well as to digital sites with news content, or blogs characterised by their new commentary.

    Coverage also extends to the online content of the following broadcasters – TVNZ, MediaWorks, Sky Network Television, Maori Television, NZME Radio and Radio New Zealand.

    The Council retains the discretion to decline a complaint if the publication has limited readership or the circumstances make the complaint inappropriate for resolution by the Council.

    Including that last escape clause was a nifty way to dodge vexatious trouble-makers, eh? Anyway the guts seems to be that a class of complainants is created by the regulator, then the regulator goes into a huddle, then produces a decision. This is deemed a "ruling" – a subtle way of reminding everyone that the ruling class still exists. Whether complainants like it or not, the ruling concludes the process.

    • Dennis Frank 3.1

      However it is also true that pseuds in the public service are operating a pseudo-regulatory scheme, currently under review: https://www.dia.govt.nz/media-and-online-content-regulation

      The aim of the Review is to design and implement a new approach to content regulation that minimises the risk of harms caused by content to New Zealanders

      Sounds good, but since the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we can perhaps note with relief that the bureaucrats include no timeline on their page.

      That means the end of their process is nowhere in sight. That means it falls into the class of the most machiavellian of bureaucratic processes: those designed to operate in perpetuity. It wears the guise of a beneficial scheme to fool punters into believing in progress. You could argue that their process isn't a deceit they're perpetrating on the public, and that they do actually have an end result in mind, and they even have an action plan (carefully concealed) to achieve it. Unless you provide evidence of that, you'd be unlikely to persuade sceptics though, eh?

  4. weka 4

    This is one of the reasons I support co-governance. Not that Māori are angelic, noble savages (just to preempt that tiresome and thoughtless argument), but that they have more cultural practice at sharing power and decentralising.

  5. Subliminal 5

    Absolutely agree Weka. At some point we need to build strong national structures that resist private interest. Implementing the Treaty agreements and co governance is one of the strongest immediate planks for robust national interest. Fear of individual persecution and loss of access to priviledged status undermines moves towards cooperative models. A state media behemoth is far more preferable to a private one. If the initial set up is not perfect it can be adjusted. Control or oversight can be tightened. Simply by ensuring a Maori and Pacifica voice will ensure that we dont just become another US cultural satellite.

  6. adam 7

    If you keep supporting this economic ideology, you have to accept the shit it dishes up.

    And monopoly is the shit it keeps dishing up.

    Well I suppose I can look on the bright side, it is fun to watch all the middle class angst. Still not down with us peons, but boy howdy is late stage capitalism screwing with you lot.

  7. roblogic 8

    We can't keep running our basic infrastructure and natural monopolies as a fragmented random assortment of linefficient, poorly run, underfunded fiefdoms. NZ is too small. After the water crises, health system failures, hacking attacks, and long painful era of creating idiotic artificial "markets" in basic services like electricity, all that these misguided free market reforms have done is create more opportunities for ticket clippers and parcelling up public assets for sale to National's wealthy mates. Privatisation goes down easier when the services are broken up into 100 little entities that can be chomped piecemeal by huge foregn corporations that then proceed to asset strip and price gouge the NZ public.

    Bigger government needed to deliver real improvements in outcomes for Kiwis. Rather than hundreds of unaccountable little bureaucracies.

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