New Zealand Media Ownership : why it matters

By   /   December 4, 2017  /   16 Comments

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The general results have been  catastrophic for those committed to public sphere principles. Newsrooms contracted, news content thinned out, and current affairs journalism disappeared from prime time television. We have here an over bearing convergence of finance, political and media culture which obscures the issues of media ownership.

This year`s New Zealand Media Ownership report written by Merja Myllylahti and published by the Journalism, Media and Democracy research centre (JMAD) recounts how two attempted mergers failed. The Sky TV –Vodafone and NZME-Fairfax mergers were prevented by the Commerce Commission (in the latter case the aggrieved parties appealed the decision to  the High Court).

These events are of major importance for New Zealand citizens and consumers. A successful Sky-Vodafone merger would have allowed   the combined company to control mobile and broadband access to the premium sports content market. An NZME-Fairfax monolith would have controlled half of the commercial radio market , 90 per cent of daily newspaper circulation and most on-line traffic to and from on-line news sites( see TDB `One Party Media` June 1, 2016, TDB `Spin Off Outsmarted`  May 8, 2017).

Yet, amidst these developments the historical patterns of New Zealand media ownership were not openly discussed by politicians or journalists.

Indeed the entire matter is almost invisible to the general public. My purpose here is to explain how the very possibility of mega media mergers eventuated and why this has attracted minimal public attention.

Let us begin with the 1980s,1990s and early to mid 2000s.

Over that period the national media landscape was hollowed out by transnational corporations under a neoliberal policy regime instituted by Labour and National governments. The same was happening to the entire economic system although this was not recognised at the time. Before Labour`s July 1984 election victory there was a shift   from family to corporate press ownership, an expansion of private commercial radio and the formation of a semi-independent broadcasting system incorporating radio and television.

As of 1980 31 of the 33 daily newspapers were owned by Independent Newspapers  Ltd (INL), Wilson and Horton and New Zealand News. Corporate raider Ron Brierely had a four per cent holding in New Zealand News and purchased Hauraki Enterprises, a controlling shareholder of Auckland radio stations Radio Hauraki and Radio I.

From 1984 to 1987 the fourth Labour government deregulated the finance sector ,reduced tariffs and floated the New Zealand dollar. Corporate mergers and acquisitions thereby accelerated and the new media capitalists gained transnational connections. This became apparent in March 1987 when Rupert Murdoch`s Newscorp obtained 40 per cent of INL. During 1989 its holdings increased to 49 per cent.

In August 1990 the Commerce Commission approved a further expansion in Newscorp`s  INL holdings. Transnational patterns of cross-media ownership were enabled by the deregulation and commercialisation of broadcasting(1989),the entry of TV3 and pay television (1989) the sale of Telecom (1990) and the lifting of restrictions on foreign media ownership(1991).

Subsequently, TV3 was acquired by Canadian  media conglomerate Can West; Sky became controlled initially  by Time-Warner and Telecommunications Inc along with  Bell Atlantic and Ameritech (the latter two companies gained a controlling share of Telecom).

In 1996 Radio New Zealand`s 41 station commercial network was sold to a consortium of Wilson and Horton, the United States radio giant Clear Communications and APN News and Media. The latter company was part of Tony O`Reilly`s holdings in Australia and the United Kingdom. From 1995 to 1998 his newspaper group , Independent Newspapers Plc (later called Independent News and Media,or INP) assumed control of  Wilson and Horton, New Zealand owners of the New Zealand Herald. From there transnational media ownership developed an  Australian dimension .

In 1999  Newscorp controlled Independent Newspapers Ltd extended its media holdings into Sky television. In 2003 Fairfax Holdings paid NZ$ 1.88 billion for INL`s press and magazine titles. At that time Fairfax was Australia`s largest print and media group and was valued at A$10.2 billion. In 2006 the company paid NZ$ 700 million for Trade Me in order to increase its on-line holdings, exploit electronic commerce and to capture the migration of classified advertising to the internet. It is worth mentioning here the absence of legal scrutiny. A few major players were dominating domestic media markets when there was no media specific competition law.

Remarkably, this destruction of national media institutions along with the underlying structure of economic sovereignty did not meet sustained opposition. These fundamental changes were obscured by Labour`s 1984 election triumph, the demonization of the defeated Prime Minister  Robert Muldoon, the apparent consensus of the August 1994 Economic Summit and the entrepreneurial nationalism associated with  Michael Fay and David Richwhite`s KZ7 Americas Cup campaign. And, most crucially, the entire language of economics was colonised by the rhetoric of free markets and market forces.

New Zealand`s Keynesian, social democratic welfare state became  the relic of a discredited  past. This meant that there was no collective basis for defending the poor and marginalised. They were merely the casualties of necessary reform ,the government`s role was to help them help themselves. The free market colonisation of economic language was enabled by a mainstream media-communication  system whose various components were largely dependent on advertising  revenue, the commercialisation of news content  and the repatriation of profits offshore.

Matters did not substantially improve under the Labour led governments of 1999 -2008.

They believed that there was a `third way` between  the extremes of market liberalism and state interventionism . However, the plausibility of this policy course depended on newly coined terms such as `new social democracy`,`partnership` ,`innovation` and the `knowledge economy`. Meanwhile, our economic past was reinvented by a  narrative that described pre 1984 New Zealand as a fortress economy or Gdansk shipyard which needed radical overhaul .

The conflation of social democracy based on the rule of law with Eastern European one party statism was pure fantasy.  Yet, many former Labour politicians and  ministers still believe this.

In Radio New Zealand`s recent  Ninth Floor series former Prime Minister  Helen Clark depicted pre 1984  New Zealand as a Western Albania.

From this point of view the related  issues of economic and national media sovereignty cannot be comprehended.

From 2008, with the election of a National government under John Key, reinventions of the economic past were no longer necessary.

The new Prime Minister exuded  a down-to-earth  non-political outlook devoid of any historical  memory.  His biographer John Roughan observed that ` Key is not a reflective man, given to dwelling on his own past or that of the country he governs. He is attuned to the present, trusting the  instincts that served him richly in foreign exchange markets and safely so far in government` .  Roughan further noted that Key had  `a currency dealer`s sure sense of the mood and movement of the market at the moment although he is less sure in his long term view`. The implication here is that the short termist culture of financial trading  fits the requirements of political leadership and that John Key`s attributes demonstrate this.

We now turn to the next step in my argument.

Just as John Key  exemplified and naturalised finance culture, finance capital came to pervade the corporate media system. From about 2007 financial institutions assumed shareholder control of major media corporations.  Previous JMAD media ownership reports (2011-2016) detail how financialisation increasingly affected the New Zealand holdings of four major corporates – Fairfax, Sky TV, APN News and Media and Media Works.

The general results have been  catastrophic for those committed to public sphere principles.

Newsrooms contracted, news content thinned out, and current affairs journalism disappeared from prime time television.

We have here an over bearing convergence of finance, political and media culture which obscures the issues of media ownership.

Recent developments though are, potentially, more hopeful.

The Commerce Commission has stood against extreme manifestations of  ownership concentration on the grounds of media pluralism and democracy.

The newly elected Labour, New Zealand First, Green government has promised to advance the principles of public broadcasting in a multi-platform environment, by supporting Radio New Zealand.

But what about the rest of our media environment?  Will Cabinet address the obvious shortcomings in media competition law? This would require some understanding of how transnational concentrations of  media ownership damage democratic principles and our national  identity.

Such an understanding is unlikely to be found among the Prime Minister`s `third way` Labour advisors.

 

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16 Comments

  1. Historian Pete says:

    Let’s think about this.The news media/internet shapes just about everything we think.Just about all our news media is foreign owned and controlled.So by allowing this to happen we have effectively given over control of our nation to foreign interests.Forget about protecting our sovereignty, we lost it years ago.If our thinking is shaped, so is our vote at elections.We beat ourselves up with the difficulty of a left progressive government getting elected, but considering what we are up against we have done fantastically well!!
    So, the immediate task ahead of us is to take back the sovereignty of our country by making it illegal for foreign entities to own or control our news media.Until we do that we cannot bring into fruition a new progressive society in which there is a fairer distribution of resources!
    As we speak there are also forces manipulating the internet to shape the narrative.However, there is also a progressive reaction to this, with a whisper of the formation of an internet independent of corporate control!
    Thus we know what the basic problem is.A leftish Govt. is in power. Can we exert pressure on them to rectify this situation , which is absolutely vital for us to move forward?!?

  2. R.P. Mcmurphy says:

    the answer is alternative media.
    micropulse line of sight radio stations.
    very cheap and very effective.

  3. CLEANGREEN says:

    Nice article Wayne

    Thanks for this backdrop to where our media has been ‘compromised’ by foriegn interests now.

    Quite a chilling picture we see ahead of us now.

    No wonder why the current crop of journalistic skill has all but left the room now.

    What do we do? or more to the point what do we expect of Government to do?

    The Government could start by reinstating the TVNZ 7 ‘publlic affairs’ channel, as our stable diet of “the other side of the story”

    That may ‘level the playing fields’ of our broken media.

    If we get a solid dose of “the real story” from our local investigative jouralists on the ground, it may put the foriegn media corporations on notice that nif they fail to report the facts then we will all walk away from their “Junk media.” we all live in hope.

    Wayne Hope says;

    “Yet, amidst these developments the historical patterns of New Zealand media ownership were not openly discussed by politicians or journalists.

    Indeed the entire matter is almost invisible to the general public. My purpose here is to explain how the very possibility of mega media mergers eventuated and why this has attracted minimal public attention.”

  4. Anthony says:

    More rose tinted glasses looking back at the terrible state the country was in pre 1984 where those who could afford went holiday to Fiji to get reasonably priced electical goods duty free, etc, etc. And there was no dismantling of the welfare State – if anything, more people are on benefits of various sorts now than back then. Don’t mix facts in with fiction.

  5. Andrewo says:

    Consider these facts:

    Newspapers are going broke worldwide. It is unlikely there will be a print edition of the Herald in five years.

    Few people under 65 years old listen to the 6pm News. It’s a waste of an hour.

    More and more people get their news from other sources. There are many other, better options other than mainstream media.

    There is well-founded distrust of journalists with ratings in opinion polls putting them somewhere close to real estate agents and second hand car salesmen.

    Professional journalism is barely a profession these days. It’s not a paying gig.

    So my advice to you Wayne is just to let it die: Nobody cares.

  6. AndrewO; and democracy, civility and a hopeful future dies too?

    • Andrewo says:

      I see no reason why they should die.

      Instead of being fed a single, sanitised version of ‘The News’ by a talking head at 6pm or an editor of a newspaper, we can now seek out alternative information and opinions in order to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the world.

      Heck! We can even express our own views as both of us are here!

      I can see that for some people the chaos of the internet might be rather uncomfortable, just because they struggle to hold two different views in their heads at once. But for the majority of us, the loss of hegemony of mainstream media is good news: We have gained a vastly more diverse and more sophisticated source of news and views than we have ever had.

      So it’s all good in my view.

  7. Cassie says:

    ALL the worlds Media is owned/controlled by a few corporations.

    I don’t know why it’s taken SO LONG for people to wake up to the truth.

    There’s no such thing as “independent ” media…least of all in New Zealand.
    Even local smalltown newspapers have been swallowed up by them.

    The REAL job of the Media is to shape public opinion…(according to the wishes of it’s sponsors. It’s sponsors have no feelings of benevolence towards mankind.)
    The Media operates by deception..ie some truths mixed with lies & propaganda.

    The Media works hand in hand with faux “government”s eg NZ GOVT which are merely registered corporations. Yes there was a big switch behind scenes that the masses were never aware of.
    Journalists employed by the Media these days are all young and been politically brainwashed. & were never taught true independent / critical thinking- let alone investigative skills.

    People are generally too distracted & busy to notice. They still believe naively that “Govt” and Media are there to “serve public’s best interest”.

    ANYONE who still has any capacity for independent thinking KNOWS that there is MORE than one side to a story (esp re overseas political news)
    ..but of course , ALL the public gets ….is only ONE side.

    Notice how there’s more & more public derision by the Media aimed at (so-called) “conspiracy theorists”…
    Well, that’s just classic manipulation- they want NOBODY to QUESTION anything they say..( =that GOVTS tell you) ha ha.

    -All the more reason to QUESTION them.
    PLENTY KNOW THAT LIFE DOESN”T MAKE SENSE ANYMORE & SEEMS TO BE REGRESSING in terms of living standards. Life for families was MUCH BETTER n the 1970’s in NZ.
    Considering all this so-called “modern technology” in the 21st Century, Life should be IMPROVING…not getting more of a struggle.

    A “few” in our world have CONTROL of ALL MONEY plus MEDIA.
    They control EVERYTHING. (Yes and, the REAL TRUTH about who they are, I cannot mention because …it would be considered “antisemitic”
    They certainly believe the world is theirs to own, and everyone else are just “cattle” & “subhuman”.
    You can tell anyway how life is going that we are all being treated like we’re just cattle.

  8. R.P. Mcmurphy says:

    Look Bomber.
    get some investors for a micropulse radio station and I will supply the template and the editorial skill and blow the fuckers right out of the water.
    Over to you.

  9. R.P. Mcmurphy says:

    so what. they are dinosaurs.
    there is always a first mover advantage when you start up in the media or the movies.

  10. Priss says:

    All I can say is: thank god for Radio New Zealand!!!

  11. Pete says:

    Just imagine when all the media in NZ are under one company. Mike Hosking will be even more ubiquitous.

    He hates the Commerce Commission because they can exercise some control. He’s like David Seymour, wants no controls unless it protects him.

  12. Black Lemming says:

    Radio NZ is the bird song in the dark forest .

    Radio NZ is a life boat in a sea of propaganda .

    Daily Blog and other alternative media are great but have relatively small audiences ,Only RNZ speaks to 400,000 listeners every morning .

    RNZ,BBC, SBS,ABC , never was it more vital for democracy to have publicly funded proper journalism .