A guest post by Melissa Lee:
I am going to make one thing very clear.
The Public Interest Journalism Fund is not fit for purpose.
I am deeply concerned over its value in enhancing New Zealand’s media plurality and the impact it may have on the future of our democracy and it should be scrapped.
In 2021 I wrote a few columns on different media platforms about my deep concerns over whether we have a media bias in New Zealand and what impact any bias, positive or negative, in the media sector could have on the future of New Zealand. Many people stood in righteous indignation against my concerns dismissing the idea that the media, even with millions in taxpayer funds, could be bought out by the Government or could utilise the funds in a way that advances certain causes or ideals by proxy over others.
I’m not going to go into detail over my concerns again as a few Journalists and media commentators have finally started reading the room on what the concept of a large portion of our ostensibly commercial journalism sector being taxpayer funded may mean. After all some have called the Fund a ‘bribe’ while as others see it as a Band-Aid on a festering wound that public and private media are alike failing to fully adapt to a globalised marketplace with all the content, bias and consumer options that is now provided to the New Zealander of 2022.
I will make it clear the Fund as it stands is not fit for purpose and must be ended, I will not allow this fund to continue if I have the opportunity to be the next National Government’s Broadcasting Minister.
The very essence of the fund allowing for political matters in journalism to be taxpayer funded is anathema to my core as a former journalist. Frankly, as I stated in Parliament, “Any news outlet that seeks money from the fund is signing up to a politicised project whose rules are fundamentally incompatible with free and independent journalism.” The age of the occasional maverick ‘activist’ or political journalist has now turned into this role being an increased ‘norm’ for media; after all, it is far more attractive to be outspoken and have proactive soundbites that get the message front and centre than to spend the better part of the year on a deep dive investigation or re-analysing an international newswire into a New Zealand context, the role of political editor has morphed from a presenter to a absolutist judge of political fact. The names of John Campbell, Tova O’Brien and Barry Soper are well known to most New Zealanders and yet they’d struggle to name many of the current reporters and journalists writing and reporting on more mundane matters of the day.
That said I have little problem with our public non-commercial broadcasters stepping in supporting apolitical community-led journalism where the commercial players are not capable covering local issues of importance to small town New Zealand, such as local Government meetings and significant events that fall by the wayside to the rest of New Zealand, however for this we are talking $1-2million for a handful of roving reporters not $55million being handed out in volumes to entities that have been essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic and able to operate near business as usual with large revenue streams.
The solution to the future of public media and publicly funded journalism is not simple. To announce a ban on any form of ‘political content’ funded by public media in general would bring about a significant debate on what we mean by political reporting. A common turn of phrase used in the political area is “this is not a political issue” which is commonly now expressed when the most political issues of the day are being debated. We need to be clearer about what we believe public funds should be provided for in general, we need to determine if NZ on Air is fit for purpose in a politicised world and we need to understand how to move forward as a nation in this space. Despite a year going by and millions more spent in reviews and funding we are still sitting in gridlock as New Zealanders decide on what we agree should be allowed ‘on the air’ and actually whether we want it taxpayer funded. We still don’t actually know what we consider ‘public interest’ and the definitions have been left to unaccountable public sector employees, that’s not good enough!
I believe the private sector is the best place for political journalism just as I believe political funding of public media should have no place in New Zealand’s democracy. We need a far stronger shift in the understanding of the future of media in New Zealand when the international community is now providing so much that influences our daily lives in a disproportionate way to that funded through NZ on Air; that isn’t NZ on Air’s fault, it’s just fact and mandating quotas or topping up private industries isn’t going to change this. Our nation is more multicultural than ever with 213+ ethnicities calling New Zealand home. As a Korean New Zealander I am just as likely to be engaging in digital platform Korean language content from overseas as I am watching home-grown content about homespun stories because few New Zealand platforms regularly provide this to the domestic Korean audience. If there’s high quality alternatives in the commercial sector globally. Simply put, as a principle, industry, not the government and actually, not the taxpayer either, should be front-footing the future of media. Public Media is there to fill a public information and service gap and to cover matters of national interest in an impartial way; it has a role as a record keeper and presenter but not a role as an arbitrator of history and society.
2022 is going to be a big year for New Zealand media and as National’s Spokesperson I will be holding the Government (and them) to account. Let me know what you think about the future of public media and what’ve just said, I’m keen to listen.
2023 is not far away and your views matter as National fights to return to the Treasury Benches and end the shambles that has been the Labour Government.
We need to sort out our media sector – now.