SPECIAL REPORT: To Save Democracy, We Must Make The Media Our Own.

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The publicly-owned, state-of-the-art television studio complex at Avalon in the Hutt valley, circa 1980.

 

WHO WILL RESCUE TV3? Almost certainly not the private sector. Not only is the commercial free-to-air broadcasting model broken, but TV3 remains burdened by its previous owners’ insatiable appetite for debt. These formidable liabilities have fatally undermined the network’s return to profitability. Even without the migration of advertising revenue to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and YouTube it would have continued to bleed money. Given these disadvantages, the probability of TV3 finding a private sector buyer is close to zero. Which leaves the obligation to rescue TV3 resting squarely with the New Zealand state – which is to say, with us.

Not that you’ll hear this, the most obvious long-term solution, articulated by many of those speculating on the fate of New Zealand’s most innovative and downright bolshie television network. “Nationalisation” is one of those words it is forbidden to utter in twenty-first New Zealand without spitting on the ground. Public ownership is almost always rendered by media pundits as “government owned” or “state controlled” – as if Jacinda Ardern, in addition to being New Zealand’s prime minister, would instantly become TV3’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Accordingly, public ownership is branded unequivocally as a “bad thing” – the first stumble down the slippery slope that leads to Putin’s state-owned and government controlled propaganda network.

 

1970s Television: More Than Flared Jeans And Disco.

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AS IS SO OFTEN the case in any discussion about who should own what in New Zealand, the historical ignorance of the younger generation stands athwart any progress towards non-neoliberal solutions. Fed horror stories about prime ministers vetting broadcast journalists’ questions and news bulletins crafted in the offices of the Tourist & Publicity Department, younger media players know nothing of the extraordinary creativity, vibrancy and independence of publicly-owned television in the late-1960s and 70s.

The latter decade, which coincided with the introduction of a second publicly-owned television channel, witnessed an extraordinary flowering of news and current affairs, documentary, drama and music programmes. For this very reason, the enemies of public ownership spare no effort in casting the 1970s as the decade that taste forgot – notable only for its flared jeans and disco. Obliterated almost completely from New Zealanders’ collective memory is the amazing collection of creative talent which was all-too-briefly assembled in the purpose-built Avalon television studios situated ten miles north of the capital. If this period is recalled at all it is only for the purposes of laughing at the posh pronunciation and absurd hairstyles of the era’s ridiculously clunky (by contemporary standards) broadcasters.

It is no accident that New Zealand’s golden era of television coincided with the changes initiated by the Norman Kirk-led Labour Government of 1972-1975. The freedom and independence that marked the broadcasting of the mid-1970s reiterated Kirk’s re-definition of New Zealand nationhood – especially his emphasis on steering a new and independent course diplomatically, economically and culturally.

The assertion of government ownership and state control, so often derided by the critics of public ownership, came not from the last democratic-socialist Labour Government, but from the Rob Muldoon-led National Government that ousted it. New Zealand the way Rob wanted it was all about hugging the fictions of the post-war era ever tighter to the ‘RSA Generation’s’ bosom. That the forces of creativity and innovation were injurious to the existing order of things was a prime-ministerial view of which public televisions’ bosses were left in not the slightest doubt. For Rob and his ‘Mob”, the proper focus of state television was the status-quo.

 

The Revolution That Wasn’t.

The overthrow of Muldoonism in 1984 brought a new status quo. To those broadcasters forced to endure the Big Chill of the late-1970s and early-1980s, the new order had a revolutionary feel – they even made a series about it. The reality, however, was that the new ‘Labour’ government’s ‘free-market’ broadcasting regime was way more insistent on ideological conformity than Muldoon’s government had ever dared to be. Richard Prebble’s Broadcasting Act of 1989 buried ‘public service broadcasting’ forever. A commercially-oriented, ratings-driven TVNZ was Rogernomics’ gift to the shattered remnants of what had once been New Zealand’s vibrant public media.

That’s why the long-awaited third television network was so warmly welcomed. TV3, by some unanticipated quirk of late-capitalist cultural logic displayed more creativity, innovation and independence than the ideologically straightjacketed TVNZ. For the past 30 years, the privately-owned TV3 network has, heroically and paradoxically, filled the vacuum created by the deliberate destruction of public service broadcasting in 1989.

Certainly, there was an attempt to re-inject public service ideals into the state broadcaster under the Clark-led Labour Government of 1999-2008. Unfortunately, the commercial ethos was so deeply entrenched in TVNZ that removing it would require, in the powerful metaphor of veteran broadcaster Ian Fraser “a neutron bomb” – i.e. something that would keep the infrastructure intact while wiping out all the people inside it. The TVNZ ‘Charter’ and its good intentions did not survive the 2008 change of government.

 

Enter Democracy’s Digital Gravediggers.

In the ten years since then both the global and the local media environment has been utterly transformed. Technological change and the radical cultural responses it has prompted have disrupted not only newspaper publishing and broadcasting, but also the democratic political system they did so much, historically, to construct. While the future of digital communication is assured, the same cannot be said for the gathering and dissemination of news. In the words of The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive:

“Journalism is different. It has been indirectly funded, through advertising, since its birth. Advertising no longer sustains it, nor will it ever again. The new advertising giants make no journalism, nor have any interest in doing so. We are facing a New Zealand in the not too distant future in which information becomes a tightly held and costly commodity (the new premium Herald is $200 a year, the NBR twice that), with access to it limited to those who have the facility to pay for it.”

Put more bluntly, the not-too-distant future will not be democratic.

That does not have to be the way things develop in New Zealand. Democracy and journalism, cultural creativity and innovation, can survive and thrive: but only if sufficient political will is summoned to the task of transitioning the newspaper and television industries out of their current configurations and into publicly managed structures dedicated to preserving the critical thinking and free speaking so essential to the practice and defence of democracy.

 

Freedom & Funding

Of course the Duncan Greives of this world will object that taking current affairs journalism, and cultural production generally, under the wing of the state will produce exactly the same reduction in diversity that the “pompous relics” at the Commerce Commission deemed so injurious to the public good in relation to the proposed merger of NZME and Stuff. But is that really the only outcome? Is that what actually happened back in the days when television was principally funded from the public purse?

The answer is “No.” The producer-driven television of the 1970s generated programmes that were as quirky as they were challenging. Ranging from the still much-beloved Country Calendar, to the ground-breaking historical drama series, The Governor, the output of the two publicly-owned television channels was formidable. Editorial freedom, moderated by professional responsibility and a strong understanding of and connection with their viewers, empowered New Zealand’s television producers to turn out programmes of impressive quality and impact.

Broadcast live out of the Avalon studios, The Dean/Edwards Show – featuring Brian Edwards and another British import, Michael Dean – anticipated the big, live-audience shows of what came to be called “reality” television. Perhaps their most memorable programme was devoted to the power of advertising. With wicked inventiveness, the production team hired an advertising agency and the actor Ian Mune to “sell” the Cooks & Stewards Union (infamous for going on strike during the school holidays) which they did with extraordinary and highly revealing effectiveness.

All that is required to generate the most stunning television is editorial freedom and the funding necessary to make it real. It is precisely this magical combination that explains the runaway success of HBO and Netflix-commissioned shows.

 

 

Public Media, not State Media.

The best way to secure the full benefits of public media is to ensure that it is firmly embedded in the local community. Once again, young New Zealanders have no memory of the time when each of the four main centres boasted an extensive regional television service. Not only did these regional production centres screen their own local news and current affairs, but also produced shows for broadcast on the nationwide network. The award-winning children’s programme “Spot On”, for example, was produced in TV One’s Dunedin studios.

The social, political and cultural impact of the hundreds of staff employed by these regional production centres was considerable. A healthy dose of irreverence and anarchic joy was injected into the inward-looking provincial communities their presence so thoroughly disrupted. With the broader public acting as their patrons, they unleashed the energy of art and the power of critical thinking against conservative regional cliques grown accustomed to smothering both.

Such was the public – the social-democratic – media culture that Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and the whole neoliberal revolution swept away.

 

Rebuilding Trust In Public Ownership.

Ah, yes, but as Kit Marlowe says in The Jew of Malta, “that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead”. For a while at least a resurrected system of public media ownership would need to be protected by some pretty sturdy walls of public accountability. The taxpayers would have to be assured that their new media system was, as Fox News boasts, “fair and balanced” and that bodies existed to make sure it was.

At both the regional and national level this could be achieved by appointing boards that were genuinely representative of the communities they served. Like the boards-of-directors of the long-gone Trustee Savings Banks, the governing bodies of these new media organisations could include nominees from the business community, the trade unions, educational institutions and communities of faith, along with representatives of management and staff. Such bodies would be there to protect not only the rights of the audience, but also the editorial freedom and independence of producers and journalists. These guardians would, themselves, be guarded by the provisions of statute law.

 

A Matter Of Political Will.

None of these changes will be forthcoming from the present government. Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, has already made it clear that he and his Cabinet colleagues have not the slightest intention of riding to TV3’s rescue. On the left of New Zealand electoral politics in 2019 there is neither the political will, nor any real political understanding of the vital role played by the media in both preserving and fostering a democratic culture. Like practically all politicians, Labour, Green and NZ First MPs regard the media in general, and journalists in particular, as the enemy. Though most of them had more delicacy than to say so out loud, Winston Peters’ “Good riddance!” response to TV3’s imminent demise was, almost certainly, their own.

The truly radical insight of the Kirk Government was that a genuinely independent public broadcasting system, driven by a desire to serve the public good, and insulated from the tutelage of the advertisers’ almighty dollar, would always end up serving the interests of the citizens it empowered – and hence the interests of the political party most dedicated to their welfare. Only when those same citizens grasp the urgent democratic necessity of rescuing not just TV3 but the entire New Zealand news media, will they be in a position to infuse their parliamentary representatives with the political will to make it happen.

If you don’t like where your country is right now, you should perhaps reflect upon how vital it was for the people who brought you here to first corrupt and then break the media institutions whose democratic duty it was to warn New Zealanders about where they were being taken – and why.

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. Well Chris, as others have noted (from those in the media, academia and others), there is a way around all this, just not the will.
    I keep noting that the whole system is over-managed and in an ideological straight jacket.
    One thing you haven’t considered – or maybe you have, is how publicly owned assets were ripped away from underneath operators – transmission facilities which are now used more for profit than for the purpose they were intended (Kordia)
    If we dither for much longer, it’ll all be gone. Politicians may think that in many ways it suits their purpose, they’re soon going to find its going to be their undoing.

  2. Governed by “nominees from the business community, the trade unions, educational institutions and communities of faith, along with representatives of management and staff”.

    How would it not become a channel for lifestyle lecturing, or dull panel discussions, or arid debates between the Woke/anti-colonisation/anti-capitalist groups?

    Who would watch such a channel or read such a newspaper (working title ‘The Daily Lecture’)?

    As a TV channel, it would sit next to TVNZ on the channel list acting as a constant reminder of Labour’s waste, activism and hectoring. As a newspaper – if it published at all – the unsold printed copies would be a daily sign of wasteful spending.

  3. https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2019/10/25/special-report-to-save-democracy-we-must-make-the-media-our-own/#comment-479698

    Todays blog.

    What a blast hearing Dogal Stevenson talking to John Campbell at this morning on TVNZ one ‘Breakfast’ show at 7.40am today when John asked Dogal; “what would you advise todays newreaders to do”?

    Dogal said very carefully after deep reflection “well I would say to him; (from memory- my words)

    “just loosen up, – you don’t want to be a slave to a BBC as an adjunct; – talk to your listeners audience as they are your own people, and you will receive far more empathy and respect for speaking the truth.”

    Then from memory I recall Dogal said, he still searches for the truth as a newsreader, and mostly listens to RNZ as our public broadcaster, in the hope that that he is hearing the truth, and others are to biased today.

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96745495/labour-promises-freetoair-rnz-tv-channel

    Yes Chris we need to get that free to air public TV channel we were promised by Labour started soon as the election process is now in full swing putting out so much fake media hype now that is is often difficult to know what is the truth any more.

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96745495/labour-promises-freetoair-rnz-tv-channel?rm=a

  4. TV3 is absolute dog shit. Let it die a swift bankruptcy and start again. What ever is done don’t pay premium prices for it. That’s what they want.

  5. The thought of bailing out Richardson, Garner et al is just too much. Good critique Chris.. Yes it was designed to be scrambled eggs. We need to hatch a whole new egg. And the Govt is not going to do it. Fool me once, twice etc.

    • Yes Philj,

      Terribly sad to see bucket of slime Garner gone along with I adore myself Richardson.

      Now, Garner can be the official full time National Party spokesman instead of the part time version he’s been recently while masquerading as a TV host and journalist. The transparency will do him good.

      As for that prick Richardson. When he played cricket he was easily the most boring batsmen in world cricket. NZ breathed a collective sigh of relief when he was moved on. Despite that he still thought he was the best ever and told everyone as much. Now he’s telling everyone he will be PM within 5 years and will be NZ’s best ever Prime Minister. What an arrogant tosser. I’m staggered that he was able to use the TV3 platform to give a party political broadcast on behalf of the National Party when he made scathing and very personal derogatory comments about Winston Peters. It was an unprecedented tirade full of hatred and bitter contempt and clearly on behalf of the National Party.

  6. But hardly anyone would watch it, and in any case its audience would be elderly and in the process of dying off. That kind of mass media is a historical relic. It worked back when the lack of options had the side effect of creating the media equivalent of the Roman forum. It was the only way to get a mass audience to watch something that most of them wouldn’t have watched, given sufficient choice.

    If you want to say that this will kill democracy, then that’s fine: it will kill democracy and there is nothing we can do about it. Except it won’t: we’ll be left with an illiberal democracy where the personal is the political, which in some respects is worse than outright execution.

    The media/political world we are entering is odd and unfamiliar, but it is inevitable and cleaving to the past is futile. As it is current affairs is a bit stupid. Many of the people watching are highly informed and highly educated–much more so than the people reporting the news. I don’t watch it because I grew bored of rehearing things I’d already had better explained on the internet and the standard of intellect, logic and evidence in the news media is abysmal: they’re B students trying to lecture A students.

  7. The non elected though still hugely influential Kiwi criminals subjected our MSM ( and us ) to a bloodless coup by blinding us with logical fallacies and neoliberal mumbo jumbo via their now corrupted msm. In so doing, they subverted proper governmental protocols to take our stuff and things off us and to then sell those stuffs and things to foreign fuckers for their massive, on-going profits squeezed out of poor fucking us.

    Rio ‘fuck face’ Tinto anyone as an example…
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/opinion-analysis/113442023/we-are-all-paying-for-tiwai-point
    Electricity. Foods. Public transport. Education etc etc etc
    That stuff was first class and now we’re Mexicans with cell phones. ( No disrespect to Mexican people. )
    [They] have what they wanted. Namely our money.
    So, who cares about TV 3, right? Who cares about RNZ? Who gives a small feathered flying fuck about free to air TV? Clearly no one given how abysmal our media is today or of how lazy and lackadaisical we are at organising ourselves to go and get our stuff, things, media and ammenities back off the aforementioned fuckers who took it.

  8. Broadcast television is doomed to the history books Chris.
    Just ask Sky TV how their once unbreakable monopoly is looking right now.
    If and quite frankly when TV3 goes out of business, who cares?
    The answer is fewer and fewer people every day.
    Nationalizing media only risks it being hijacked by a Trumpian figure in the future.
    Best let TV3 die and have alternatives based on modern business models take its place.

  9. Make the media our own?

    Listening to RadioNZ and some other stuff emanating from the ‘deep state’, I reckon America have already beaten ‘us’ to it, m8.

    At the end of the day, when the media is littered with contributors who grow old and fear losing their job, or have mouths to feed and fear losing their job!

    Money decides what these esteemed guardians of democracy, produce.

    Invariably, it’s utter crap. Straight propaganda.

  10. Bloody good point, Chris. Maybe Richard Long protected RNZ to a certain extent during National’s reign, with his dumb-fluffer announcers. But 1930s on we’ve always known the importance of having a voice. Sorry if I’m repeating, but my ideally generous, most virtuous of people, G.G. Uncle helped found ‘The Dominion’ to fight the Liberals, and, mostly ever since, agin the rule of the people. I imagine, like the present day Yanks, he thought it should all come from the self-understanding of the successful. As so it was more about their feeling for themselves than the need of the needy.

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