Getting Serious About Media Reform

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LET’S SUPPOSE the next Labour-led Government decides to “get serious” about media ownership in New Zealand. How would they do that? What does “getting serious” even mean?

“Getting serious” first and foremost means Labour acknowledging that, since the late-1980s, this country has undergone the most radical media deregulation in the OECD.

Unlike just about every country we typically compare ourselves with, New Zealand makes it possible for a foreign investor to own not only his or her own stable of newspapers and magazines, but also his or her own radio and television networks. With no prohibition against foreign and/or cross-media ownership, New Zealanders have watched helplessly as first their daily newspapers, then their local radio and television stations, and, finally, their favourite magazines were taken over by foreigners.

Quintessential New Zealand titles like The ListenerMetroNorth & South and even the venerable NZ Woman’s Weekly are no longer owned by Kiwis but by the German-owned conglomerate, the Bauer Media Group. Based in Hamburg, Bauer operates in 16 countries and specialises in magazine publishing. Over the course of the past year, operating in Australasia alone, it has spent $600 million acquiring the pride of Australia’s and New Zealand’s news-stands.

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By far the largest media organisation in New Zealand, however, is Sky Network Television Ltd. Roughly 760,000 new Zealanders subscribe to its scores of satellite TV channels, and its 389,139,785 shares, currently valued at $5.95 per share, give it a capitalisation of $2.31 billion. Sky’s top-ten shareholders are National Nominees Ltd, JP Morgan Nominees Australia Ltd, HSBC Nominees (New Zealand) Ltd, JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Ltd, National Nominees (New Zealand) Ltd, Custodial Services Ltd, RBC Investor Services Australia Nominees Pty Ltd.

This foreign domination of New Zealand’s media industry would not be so appalling if the country possessed a well-resourced and proudly independent public broadcasting system – along with an equally independent, publicly-owned, mass-circulation newspaper or magazine (as The Listener used to be.)

Sadly, this is not the case.

The only genuinely publicly-owned nationwide broadcaster still standing is the state-owned Radio New Zealand. Maori Television is, by definition, a sectional broadcaster – albeit an excellent one. While Television New Zealand, which should be this country’s public broadcasting flagship, has become a toxic waste dump of cultural sludge.

There was nothing accidental about TVNZ’s decline. When Labour’s Richard Prebble transformed it into a commercially-driven SOE back in 1989 he was careful to drive a neoliberal stake deep into its heart and brain. Over the intervening years the deterioration in the quality of TVNZ’s output has been as noticeable as it was irreversible. Among the succession of men who commanded the “Death Star” (as TVNZ’s employees half-jokingly described their corporate employer) only Ian Fraser correctly diagnosed its true malady and prescribed an appropriate cure. The SOE, he quipped, needed to be hit by a neutron bomb – something that would get rid of all the people while leaving the buildings intact.

So, having recognised the extent of the problems confronting New Zealand’s media: foreign control of its privately-owned infrastructure; the moral and professional decay of its publicly-owned media institutions; how should a Labour-led Government “get serious”?

The first step would be to announce that an incoming centre-left government would be committed to ending the foreign domination and oligopolistic control of New Zealand’s media industry. Cross-media ownership would be prohibited (i.e. it would no longer be possible to own a newspaper chain, radio stations and a television network). Nor would it be possible for foreign persons and corporations to exercise a controlling interest in any New Zealand media outlet. And, because the airwaves are public property, anyone using them would be obliged to produce a range of programmes dedicated to the public interest: news and current affairs, drama, documentaries. Radio stations would be required to play the music of local artists to the maximum extent compatible with effective programming.

Reform of this magnitude would obviously derange the business models that have dominated the New Zealand media industry since deregulation. The need for foreign-owned entities to divest themselves of businesses they had hitherto owned and controlled would result in the latters’ substantial devaluation. This would make the next stage of the government’s reforms considerably easier.

In the case of Sky Network Television, in particular, deregulation would have a profound impact on the value of the company’s stock. A sharp decline in the share price would likely follow a Labour-led Government’s formation, making it possible for the incoming Ministers of Finance and Broadcasting to negotiate a fair price for the entire shareholding of Sky Network Television and its subsequent purchase by the State.

The nationalisation of Sky would be followed by its merger with Radio New  Zealand and TVNZ into a wholly new public broadcasting entity. The subscription base of the satellite network would be extended free-of-charge to include every New Zealand household and the annual fee reduced to the equivalent of $1.00 per day.

The State would also stand in the market as the buyer of last resort for publications that could not otherwise be sold. Ultimately, these would be transformed into municipally-owned but editorially-independent newspaper companies, or, in the case of magazines, worker-owned co-operatives. There would also be considerable funding made available for investigating the sustainable melding of paper-based and digital media.

The NZ on Air funding model would be extended to the print media – making possible the extensive (and expensive) investigative reporting which so many newspapers and magazines currently struggle to underwrite.

The above reforms would have a profound impact on the cultural and creative confidence of New Zealanders. It is remarkable that since 1989 we have witnessed the state-sanctioned pillaging of what was once a comprehensive, citizen-owned broadcasting system. Remarkable, too, the way in which New Zealand’s print media passed into foreign ownership almost without protest.

The re-nationalisation (both in the sense of bringing under state control and returning control to New Zealand nationals) of our media industry will make a profound difference to the way New Zealanders think about and behave towards each other. It will vastly strengthen our democracy and breathe new life into all our political and cultural institutions. This rejuvenation will extend the benefits of the policy into the economic and social spheres as the creative energies it unleashes find new outlets in both the marketplace and the wider society of New Zealand.

Those who oppose the proposed changes will do so from a variety of motives. Fear of state control and the loss of media freedom are legitimate concerns which a government of the centre-left will need to assuage to the maximum extent possible. Others, however, will fear these reforms because they anticipate their emancipatory effects, and are reluctant to see freedom extended so widely. Their most dangerous foes, however, will be those who see them as threats to both their power and their profits – both of which they will do all within their power to protect.

As is always the case with progressive reform, the vociferous opposition of these vested interests is the strongest argument for making the change.

17 COMMENTS

  1. And the public backlash would be how much when the NZRFU couldn’t pay to keep McCaw Carter et al because their revenue streams would diminish with the drop in broadcasting rights. How would Waitakere man view that?

    • I suspect a left leaning government would attempt to pass some law denying Rugby Players the ability to play overseas. After all the country provided them the environment that they learnt to play the game so really they owe the country and should be made to stay here for a suitable period of time.

    • I guess the NZRU will have do what what soccer playing nations have done so for the past 50 years or so and allow overseas based players to play for the All Blacks.

      • Which would have the effect of gutting the domestic game here with the good chance that it will go in to a decline as people stop watching the game locally and the NZRFU loses even more revenue. You just need to look at Association Football to see that.

  2. I love how many on the left seeing the destruction of private wealth as a good thing. Do you not think foreign investors (which the NZ economy would still need) would start to shy away from the NZ economy if other foreign investors wealth was deliberately destroyed by Government policies? If you don’t think this is a problem look what has been happening in Argentina as a result of similarly wrong headed leftist policies

    http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2013/05/15/argentinas-inflation-dilemma/

    http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21589919-heavy-handed-controls-foreign-exchange-spawn-elaborate-dodges-clamped?zid=305&ah=417bd5664dc76da5d98af4f7a640fd8a

    • Maybe if private wealth didn’t have such a sterling record when it comes to undermining the public interest, we wouldn’t begrudge it so. Free markets in practice end up being little more than a protein shake for the plutocracy.

    • Yes, Argentina has been under attack by the IMF and various other aligned financial institutions for quite some time now, as punishment for trying to have an independent economy and resistance to being pillaged by the world’s financial system as most other countries are (including New Zealand).

      We definitely need to be wary of this, because our financial status is held hostage by the corrupt world banking system.

      I would suggest a much more softly-softly approach than Chris’. Start by changing TVNZ’s charter, give digital frequencies to non-profit channels currently shut out of broadcasting by the digital switchover (see http://thestandard.org.nz/nat-government-treachery-destroys-public-broadcasting/ ) and fund them and Radio NZ adequately.

      Work carefully and gradually towards regulation. Not this wholesale destruction method. Don’t scare the horses.

      • Care to explain how the IMF ‘attacks’ a nation? It is like arguing the UNDP or Save the Children fund ‘attacks’ a country when they give aid. It doesn’t surprise me you have this position though. It is similar to that expressed by people in Zanu-PF when they had destroyed the productive base of the Zimbabwean economy.Hard core leftist always blame others for the economic blunders they have caused whether it be ‘profiteers’ or the IMF/World Bank.

        • Parroting the given line there aren’t we.

          Fact: The IMF gives nothing to anyone ever.

          The IMF LOANS money to countries, under draconian austerity conditions, and expects the money to be paid back.

          It’s an attack on a country’s sovereignty and has been done to many countries including Argentina.

          Argentina didn’t buy into any of that crap and continued its own path toward prosperity – and various financial institutions tied to the IMF and World Bank have attacked the country’s currency and other aspects of its economy that are exposed to world markets.

          Understandably, we want to avoid that kind of unwanted attention in NZ.

      • I’d agree with that. The nationalisation of Sky is talking like the internet doesn’t exist and that the ISP’s aren’t doing what Sky mostly does since it produces little original content other than sport and some stuff on Prime.

        It’s future is very uncertain besides we have entities that can be content distributors (which Sky mostly and ISP’s are increasing becoming) in Kordia and content producers that need a public service focus and better funding TVNZ & RNZ.

        The state should be preparing for the future and leading the way not holding on to the past which Sky will be, privatise the profits and privatise the eventual loses with this one.

        It’s good article even feels like it was written for pre-internet age ironically on the internet a talent I find that the middle aged seem to excel at it’s quite funny.

    • lolz, wall street journal and the economist. As if I want to read the end times ramblings of the neoliberal cheerleaders.
      What next? You gonna post a link to moon man because an earthquake is coming next year?

  3. It’s far too late for any of this. The only reason public broadcasting worked was because of a lack of media choice. The mass audience for it no longer really exists. If you put serious public broadcasting back on, people would simply go elsewhere to watch dog tricks on Youtube.

    Add to that the fact that the clowns are now firmly in control (just as they are in our universities), and there’s not really a lot you can do. It’s a bit like being a Roman citizen as the Goths took over.

    Oh well…

  4. A slightly less radical approach would be to begin by borrowing from the electricity industry and telephone system. First, the broadcast reticulation that Sky dominates should be separated from the content. This could open up massive opportunities for new content providers. (UFB could help here too.)Second, a major shake up of the staffing of TVNZ and Radio New Zealand, as well as the Listner if it is still in public hands, to encourage a new focus. Third the reallocation of TV on Air resources back to the public broadcaster alone. Fourthly, a more vigorous approach to sanctioning or at least regulating the more doctrinaire radio channels wouldn’t hurt. However, before any improvements can be made, there needs to be a clear vision of what specifically an improved, better resourced public media would seek to achieve. At the moment I fear that “quality” programming and responsible investigative journalism is the darling only of the dying generations. Do the under 30s give a toss about an improved media? Growing up without, do they have neither understanding of nor inclination towards any of this?
    Nevertherless a more limited program such as I suggest would be more likely to carry public support. The last time the left tried this they suffered death by a thousand interest groups. This should be resisted, (although a Public Access Channel might provide an outlet for the more marginal of subgroupings). This should be about better media, not simply fairer, more representative media. They are not the same thing.

  5. Chris, I see the RESULT of the “media reality” in this forsaken country every day. Like some other migrants (we are NOT all bad ones!) I struggle to find people to have SENSIBLE conversations with, that are not about the last rugby game, the last show on mainstream television, about the latest online “craze” or whatever.

    I am struggling to find people to talk about on politics, social and economic matters, even harder so on environmental matters, as the broadcasting and wider media landscape is “barren” of true, independent and valuable information, yes, most do not even bother to read, listen or view “mainstream media” publications now.

    The fitting scene I saw on TV3 the other night, where they questioned people living in the new “electorate” up on the North Shore. One guy laughed and said, he had never heard of Colin Craig, would not vote for him (let alone others), and he appeared to be the typical fitting “idiot” that you have represent about 80 to 90 per cent of the population here.

    How can you have a “functioning democracy” with that state of affairs, and that explains exactly why Key and his gang are still there where they are!!!

    It is absolutely essential to restore some more independent, balanced broadcasting and informing by expanding and first of all recreating public broadcasting. Having it all left to Sky and Mediaworks, besides of already beyond recognition corrupted TVNZ is INSANE.

    We need public and informative and educating broadcasting, and more, the online version, and also controls on papers and the likes, who are bascially owned by two Australian corporates.

    Re “Bauer”, they are just new on the block, but a sign of the time, it does not matter who owns the private media, it is a concern, and it should never have been allowed to reach this scandalous situation.

    The one way to hit back is to use this and other sites, to write, inform, repost, and whatever, and create your OWN more independent media, opposite to the corrupt mainstream media. That is what I am trying to contribute to.

    Fuck the corporates, that is my message on this, no matter where thy come from!

  6. Those that argue, it is “too late” as there are “You Tube” and the likes, perhaps realise also, that only some is “free” on the web, but much can only be accessed through pay-walls!

    What is wrong with the government offering services, where contracts may be made with other providers, to offer downloads at affordable prices, and that work for all?

    Why leave it all to internet providers that also are “private'” and are increasingly DOMINATING the media?

    Surely some solutions are possible.

  7. Good article Chris. Good to see somebody putting actual left-wing persectives into the public forum. I’m mostly in support of what you’ve put forward here, and recognise that it would probably result in a financial backlash, as international finance would undoubtedly attempt to bend us to their will again. In my opinion the pain of achieving freedom would be more than worthwhile. Getting through this would be very difficult when you’d have the corporate media & right-wing politicians fighting to frame this kind of policy negatively, but that’s another story.

    The one thing that I think is lacking from your argument is that there would need to be a mechanism for separating government ownership from government voice. I’m strongly in support of having a publically owned media charged with supporting local media producers & perspectives. Broadcasting however needs to be independent of those in power.

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