Good journalists do not start with a message but with a question.
This makes the New Zealand government's “Public Interest Journalism Fund” (PIJF), set up in mid-2020, a questionable exercise. For local media to apply for a slice of the available NZ$55 million, they first need to sign up to supporting a list of political causes.
The standard funding agreement to access the PIJF contains a section titled “New Zealand Identity and Culture and Public Interest requirements”.
“You will use best endeavours to ensure all Content reflects and develops New Zealand identity and culture,” it states.
It then asks journalists to ensure, among other matters, that content “actively promotes the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi) acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner.”
If you are unfamiliar with New Zealand politics, this requirement may sound innocent. Who would object to good race relations? No-one, hopefully.
However, the wording makes it clear that the actual agenda goes well beyond an acknowledgment of the Treaty of Waitangi as an historic document of constitutional significance. It demands that journalists accept the government's interpretation of the Treaty and then promote it actively.
The problem is that the meaning of the Treaty is a contemporary political issue, and there is more than one political interpretation. Therefore, the expressed requirement to take a side necessarily collides with journalists' professional ethos, irrespective of their personal stance on the Treaty.
The government paying journalists only on the condition that they agree to spread the government's message on the Treaty creates an obvious challenge for journalism in New Zealand.
Hartwich gets the heart of the problem – the $55 million is conditional on media organisation's agreeing with the Government's view on the Treaty. This is repugnant. Polling by Curia has shown a massive 59% think the PIJF undermines the independence of the media. Only 24% of Kiwis support retaining the PIJF.
I hope the next Government will scrap it entirely. However there may be a case for funding reporting on court cases and local councils. But this would need to be done with no conditions around the Treaty and through some sort of neutral body not appointed by the Government of the day.