A group of more than 30 editors who penned a letter against the commerce commission’s draft decision to reject the merger between Fairfax and NZME, proved how easily commercial concerns could cloud sound journalistic judgment.
The letter came out last Saturday and appeared on a number of newspapers including The Press and The NZ Herald.
The editors claimed that a change in ownership would not result in “falling prey” to commercial agenda.
How do these editors expect us to believe that when all of them have already accepted to walk the plank of clickbait journalism precisely because of commercial considerations?
The editors greatest concern was the Commerce Commission’s assumption about their professionalism and their capacity to support “plurality, quality and accuracy”.
Well, these editors, more than anyone else, should understand the pitfalls of moving towards a “trust us mentality”. After all, why would we even need a fourth estate, if we assumed that people in positions of power always did the right thing?
The trouble is that the people who say they would never compromise on quality have shown us that they are making those compromises already by producing diluted news.
Walking into some newsrooms and seeing the sea of white middle-class people, it becomes hard to believe that the commitment to “diversity of views, perspectives and experiences” is anything but a lip service.
The editors said the mass ownership of a publicly listed company was “an added protection to journalistic independence”. This is a misguided view.
Investigative journalism is an essential element of a functioning democracy but it is increasingly under threat because of shareholders’ short-term demand for constant growth and profitability.
Such demands fail to consider the long-term detrimental effect of public’s loss of confidence in media’s ability to produce quality news and to hold those in power to account.
NZME and Fairfax’s flagship print papers, The New Zealand Herald and The Press, occasionally produce good investigative journalism (think Dirty Secrets of Your Kiwisaver and Faces of the Innocents).
They do this to keep up some semblance of quality but a commercially motivated merger and the drive to reduce costs would mean that the need for two papers investigating different issues would disappear.
As a result, we will see an already weakened investigative journalism being squeezed even further.
The letter claimed that the merger would not result in loss of plurality of voices and named a long list of available alternatives. The list contained mainly non-print media sources and included Twitter and Facebook. The Commerce Commission’s concern was of course about the harmful concentration of print media and I doubt it if many would consider Twitter and Facebook as serious sources of news especially after the recent publicity around fake news.
If the media companies are in trouble, it is because they have lost people’s confidence in them as a credible fourth estate.
If they are to address the root cause of their problems they need to ask their bosses to adopt a longer view and take some bold and courageous steps.
Perhaps the editors should have written their letter to the government to urge them to defend local journalism and tax their overseas competitors.
The need for government to support good journalism should be at the top of the political agenda ahead of next year’s general election.