If not television, then how? Response to the Ellis paper on news media.

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Dr Gavin Ellis, former Editor-in-Chief of the NZ Herald, in his position paper on the news media asks in his title “If not journalists, then who?” From the Gluckman institute at Auckland University and released last week following the maelstrom of the media meltdown of April and the sacking of the media and communications minister the timing cannot be faulted. Ellis cites workshops with the main players as having informed the paper and I take it as authoritative. Ellis has more-or-less written the template the coalition government will use to produce a white paper of their own in a few weeks if they are to be taken seriously and show Melissa Lee’s knee-capping was more than just a Luxon flex.

It is written a lot like a former editor of the NZ Herald would write an editorial leader: some showy prose with show-off semi-colons; we know the ones – then into a series of staccato demands supposedly on behalf of the public but essentially self-serving.  While the concern of the report is focused on the news media, Ellis however cannot see his own partiality in exalting the news media and journalism above all other modes and values in the hierarchy. Is the glowering pomposity delivered from the editor’s lecturn, spectacles perched on the edge of the nose, the right stance right now?

Their currency is crashing going by popularity. Ellis is confronted with a bog of disbelief in the polling statistics – no normal person trusts the news let alone seeks it out. The recent data says a normal person would deliberately turn the channel over if the news came on. His remedy of media self-healing relies on a media self-awareness that simply does not exist. His paper itself would indicate critical self-awareness is at superficial levels only – no studies or thoughts of bias were mentioned, the scandal of RNZ sacking an online reporter who was editing copy was not mentioned.

Dr Ellis it seems has employed some heavy censorship of his own to airbrush out failings. Is this whitewashing to promote his nebulous “social cohesion” model? That is the aim towards which he says journalism is directed: democracy and social cohesion. Since when were newspapers – traditionally advocating class war or advocating bashing Maori – ever about  “social cohesion”? All the oceans of ink he spent on hate-mongering at the Herald only to be told his endeavours were for social cohesion – it’s absurd. Ellis’s version of social cohesion is not having Israel mentioned in the cartoon (as Malcolm Evans can attest) so what value is his vision of cohesion? It sounds innocuous, but it reeks of state ideology in the Asian mould.

As for the question, is it rhetorical? He could have posed the problem differently:

- Sponsor Promotion -

As a question of content: If not news, then what? 

As a question of medium: If not television then how? 

Before running through and assessing the recommendations I have to mention the Freeview website is obtuse in the extreme. Can I watch streaming Freeview on my mobile or laptop? That’s the obvious question they don’t want to answer. Is the streaming app barred to mobiles and laptops, desktops, is it only available to Smart TVs? The answer must be no if they go to this length to not even ask the question. A product that doesn’t want to face up to the truth.

Reading between the lines I think Melissa Lee let the statement of intent for TVNZ go wide and she had given TVNZ an impression they could end Freeview and chuck all the gravy titles onto the paywalled side of TVNZ+ and that Fair Go was part of that migration. I think Lee was so hands off she had let TVNZ write their own statement of intent including dumping freeview, I’m not sure, but this seems a possibility.

Key recommendations

My comments underneath each.

  • News media should urgently review their practices in order to rebuild trust and reduce news avoidance. 

No. They cannot mark their own homework, they cannot review themselves with any credibility. They need an outside review. People don’t tolerate propaganda anymore the way they used to, thirty years of media studies at least alerted them to know when it was occurring. And guess what? Turns out the propaganda is all the time and peaked at the Ardern/Hipkins”podium of truth” where China could frame narrative and veto  truth and no one wanted to be cancelled like how they cancelled all the nation’s magazines so everyone tows the line. How to recover from recurrent credulity? Most people are over it. It’s too much, too shrill. The tabloid hyperbole is now like tyre advertisements – Maiki Sherman’s opinion poll presentation that once would have shamed even Paddy Gower is now last week’s dumpster fire (the part that makes Sherman’s piece seem derranged was sitting opposite Simon Dallow and bellowing it at him like a breathless Monty Python skit). How to reduce news avoidance itself sounds like a Monty Python sketch: First, if you see news come on TV try to overcome your immediate impulse to change the channel, maintain a respectful gaze without breaking eye contact; second, tilt your head and/or nod as if thinking about the news item or issue raised; thirdly, pretend to care about the issue by expressing emotion appropriate to the issue; and fourthly write a telegram to the Director-General of the BCNZ commending the promotion of Philip Sherry’s eyebrows to Knight Grand Cross of the Order the Garter.

  • Government should formally recognise the vital role that professionally responsible news media need to play in a cohesive functioning democracy. 

Elevate their status is what Ellis means here. Note the word is cohesive which is establishment dogma he tries to co-locate with democracy, but what he advocates is ideological mainstream not real plurality and diversity.

  • The Digital Services Tax Bill should be amended to allow for a ring-fenced levy on digital platforms to compensate media for direct and indirect use of content, and establish an equitable means of distribution. 

What Ellis wants is a claw-back from the big overseas platforms ad revenue given direct to the NZ news media on some hypothicated basis. But Ellis does this without considering every other (ie. non-news) local content maker and how they should be compensated too – as if it was purely news content that was driving views or whose model was at stake. The paper covers what has happened in Canada and Australia when a news bargaining scheme was enacted and it shows the big boys play hard and may call the bluff by carrying no news at all. The mechanism of the bill at least is a good idea for simplicity sakes.

  • The Broadcasting Commission should be reconstituted as a commission responsible for the consolidation and administration of the following autonomous, independent functions: 
  • Content standards and complaint adjudication 
  • Content classification (including social/search digital platforms) 
  • Funding allocation 
  • Research and advocacy 
  • Under the commission proposal, negotiations should begin with self-regulated media to establish within the commission a single independent content complaints system in line with recommendations of the 2013 Law Commission report on media.

This all makes sense, and I’ve advocated in previous columns for this consolidation, but the underlying problem of effectively keeping things independent of politics and the government of the day remains unresolved if the Minister is involved and Treasury revenue is used.

  • NZ On Air and Te Māngai Pāho, which would sit under the commission umbrella, should have their funding models reviewed in light of changes to linear services, funding of news/current affairs, and – if implemented – the administration of levy distributions. 

Some of that NZOA funding is directed by the Minister to be given to RNZ etc so they are restricted in how far they can innovate if a third of the NZOA fund is going to RNZ every year no matter what. Does the Commission appoint the RNZ board – because they should if they are funding it.

  • The impact of algorithmic manipulation should be investigated, including possibilities for countervailing measures.

Just mind your own manipulations, the human ones are bad enough. What isn’t a manipulation algorithmicly? Is he saying the commission should regulate the platforms as well? The censorship realm is sensitive and alive: the Christchurch Call isn’t mentioned in the paper but the impetus at an early stage was regulating livestreaming and that will destroy any online alternate to television.

  • Central and local government advertising spending should be primarily directed to domestic media. 

This sounds simple enough, but will councils abide a voluntary code and will any mandatory direction be a breach of free trade agreements?

  • Distortional government funding of state-owned media should be avoided but there should be a review the adequacy of Māori and other ethnic media funding. 

A bit late: TVNZ was funded enough to kill off TV3.

  • An industry working group should be established to prepare practical, timetabled options for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) switch off or phase down. 

This is appalling. They switched off analogue ten years ago, leaving us with Freeview which the Nats then cut funding to TVNZ6 and 7 taking them off the air. Provincial people in the 13% of the population not covered by terrestrial signal had to buy a satellite signal box. Freeview still claim on their website that it is free TV “for life” even though documents show Warner Bros wants to end DTT transmission NEXT YEAR if they can! So that’s channels 3,4,8,9 and more all pulling out of the consortium and TVNZ saying it won’t renew and it is just a matter of time. Does that sound like “for life”? The life of a hamster perhaps. What a have, what suckers the Kiwis were. Ellis doesn’t give even half a fuck about all the people who have bought TVs with freeview that are shortly to be made redundant – he doesn’t consider that injustice – he only cares for the news industry not the consumers. He strikes me as out of touch to the everyday realities, a middle class nonchalance that income security brings – oh they’ve changed the TV thingy we’ll just get a new one. Someone’s just spent $1,500 on a mid-range TV and might only get three years use of Freeview – how’s that purchase now feeling?

  • Initiate a comprehensive, coordinated review of legislation governing regulation of both state-owned and private sector media, and laws relating to reputation, privacy, and harmful content. 

Agreed, do it all at once and bring all media into one regime, one ring to unite them.

  • Interim protection against Large Language Model scraping of media organisations’ content and archives should be provided as a precursor to comprehensive measures to govern generative artificial intelligence in line with international initiatives. 

Identify the harm or the loss – it sounds defensive and pre-emptive to control and once again Ellis only sees news as victim and worthy of cuddling and seems to operate at an autistically appreciable level of solopsistic insularity when ignoring completely all the other content creation unconnected with the higher value of journalism. There are other content providers and they deserve equal protection and equal benefit of revenue capture.

  • Journalism (defined to ensure the production of journalism that is in the public interest) should be recognised as a charitable purpose for philanthropic donations, and Government should investigate structural forms of tax relief for eligible media entities. 

Miraculous coincidence here how wealthy people and their foundations are listed as sponsors of this paper on media and the final recommendation is that wealthy people and their foundations are given tax breaks for supporting media. One of those sponsors I see is the Wright Family who bankroll The Platform, so they seem particularly invested already.

Overall the recommendations are solid, but the problem correctly identified and not resolved with any satisfaction in the paper was independence from politics and the funding coming from government and therefore subject to a government minister. These were addressed in my proposal to have a pre-paid licence fee levy on devices to fund NZOA and have the device owner register as an elector of the commission so the board will become elected by them.

The ball is now back in the government’s court. They have enough from the industry to prepare a white paper in response. My guess is NZ First will be livid with the stance by Warner Bros. at destroying a hard-won NZ brand and could be promoting regulatory specifics like mandatory outputs to remain on Freeview as a response, it depends on how angry Winston is most likely as to what he will get out of National. Winston put one of their MPs into that portfolio as Parliamentary Under Secretary for a reason.

14 COMMENTS

    • Who here watches more than 10 hours a week of broadcast TV? Who spends more than 10 hours a week on the internet? Who spends more than 10 hours a week watching a streaming service / online video content? That gives you an idea of what is relevant to people’s lives.

      • Of course, if you can’t afford a decent broadband / data package, you are stuck with the mostly garbage served up on free to air TV.

  1. You have more tolerance than me as while I read most of the article you mentioned I gave up before I got to the end.
    While I obviously experience the frustration of having an MSM that often misrepresents the social justice & economic equality movements I also belong to a smaller Christian religion that believes that the rest of the Christion & other religions have got some or most of the basics wrong so generally any coverage is negative although our health message is starting to get popular now.
    My main concern is that too many people are prepared to let other people do their thinking for them & any “research” the do is often only to support their existing opinions.

  2. It’s not rocket science, to be worth its salt, to gain and hold our trust, the news media must faithfully, rigorously and in timely fashion, objectively report. And to do that it must draw from the best of all the reportage available, not just that selected to produce Ellis’s “social cohesion”, a phrase wreaking of the subjective manipulation which, as Gramsci said, is the real role the media plays in society, that of a tool of the establishment maintaining “cultural hegemony” over our lives.

  3. The problem with journalism today is who is doing it – the journalists themselves.

    Journalism has largely become a monoculture of progressive viewpoints about what is news and how the news should be covered for a broader agenda – ‘being on the right side of history’, and that I think has led to the public’s declining trust.

  4. It’s a testament to the many layers of propaganda that infect our news services that this article mentions “the scandal of RNZ sacking an online reporter who was editing copy” going unmentioned. The great irony of that scandal was that the “reporter” was actually making the articles more factually accurate but it didn’t fit the propaganda needs of western powers so he had to be made an example of.

    It’s no wonder that the public is getting more and more distrustful of conventional news services when it’s relatively easy to find reports from on the ground in global troublespots that disagree with the Reuters print-out.

    I think we all agree there are problems though and yes, the arrogant attitude of the establishment media will be their undoing

    • Very true. It was disgusting that the factual corrections that Mick Hall was executing to fix open lies and blood libels in Reuters copy were not 100% endorsed by RNZ management. Even worse that he was fired for refusing to happily endorse the rape and murder of children by zionists, as is RNZ policy.

    • Aaron, it was written ambiguously, I meant scandal he was fired, not hired, he was the only one doing a good job as you say.
      NZ First policy is an inquiry into the news media, but that won’t help now, everyone is tearing them to shreds online without a panel of royal commissioners having to be involved.

      • Thanks Tim, I did wonder if that was what you meant – but as I said, there are so many layers…

        I presume Winston is being driven by his anti-mandate supporters? Ironically enough they’re a group who seem to have managed to add their own layer of confusion on top of the issue

  5. Asked AI about it, which was disturbingly persuasive. Here is the whole text generated:

    Certainly! Let’s explore the potential benefits of a world without professional journalists. Keep in mind that this is a speculative exercise, and there are both positive and negative aspects to consider.

    The Benefits of No More Professional Journalists
    1. Decentralization of Information:
    Without professional journalists, information dissemination would become more decentralized. Citizen journalists, bloggers, and social media users would play a more significant role in reporting news and sharing their perspectives.
    This decentralization could lead to a wider range of voices being heard, as it breaks away from the traditional gatekeeping role of professional news organizations.
    2. Reduced Bias and Agenda-Setting:
    Professional journalists are not immune to biases. In a world without them, news reporting might become less influenced by editorial agendas or corporate interests.
    Citizen journalists may provide raw, unfiltered information, allowing readers to form their own opinions without intermediaries.
    3. Cost Savings:
    Running news organizations with professional journalists is expensive. Eliminating this cost could lead to more efficient use of resources.
    Smaller, community-driven news outlets might thrive, focusing on local stories and events.
    4. Increased Transparency:
    Without professional journalists, the curtain would be lifted on how news is produced. Readers would see the process more clearly, including biases, fact-checking, and editorial decisions.
    Transparency could foster trust between news consumers and content creators.
    5. Innovation and Experimentation:
    With no established norms, new forms of storytelling and reporting could emerge. Creative approaches, such as interactive multimedia or immersive experiences, might flourish.
    Experimentation could lead to fresh ways of engaging audiences.
    6. Empowerment of Individuals:
    Citizen journalists and everyday people would have a greater role in shaping the narrative. They could report on issues that matter to them directly.
    Empowering individuals to share their stories could lead to a more diverse and inclusive media landscape.
    7. Focus on Local News:
    Without professional journalists covering global events, local news might receive more attention. Community stories, local politics, and neighborhood happenings could take center stage.
    This shift could strengthen community bonds and civic engagement.
    8. Challenging the Status Quo:
    Professional journalists sometimes conform to established norms. A world without them might encourage more critical thinking and questioning of authority.
    Independent voices could challenge prevailing narratives.
    Conclusion:
    While these potential benefits are intriguing, it’s essential to recognize that professional journalists also serve critical roles in investigative reporting, fact-checking, and holding powerful entities accountable. A balanced media ecosystem likely requires a mix of professional and citizen journalism.

    Note: This report is purely speculative and does not advocate for the elimination of professional journalists.

    I’ve provided an imaginative exploration of the benefits, but it’s crucial to acknowledge the vital role professional journalists play in our society. Their work ensures accuracy, accountability, and informed public discourse. ️

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