Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels
Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels

Peter Williams: The state of our state media

Peter Williams 22/06/2021

OPINION: In a country like ours with a small population, the role of government in expensive industries and high priced endeavours is sort of accepted. And I’m talking about both local government and central government. 

In recent days, we’ve seen quite a bit of discussion about the America’s Cup, and whether or not a county with an economy the size of New Zealand can afford to host it without a significant chunk of government money. Apparently, it makes us feel good as a nation to have these events funded to a huge extent by public money. 

10 years ago, New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup. The tournament ran at a loss of something like $35 million - a loss that was picked up by the taxpayer after taxpayers and ratepayers around the country had picked up much of the tab for a whole lot of stadiums to be rebuilt. Add in theatres, museums, swimming pools, sports grounds and parks and you realise that public funding and ownership is just the way we do so much in this country. And it filters down to the media and entertainment industry too. 

I was watching the Brokenwood Mysteries on Sunday night, a TV series funded by New Zealand on Air - and that’s fine. Some good homegrown entertainment that would otherwise be too expensive to make. There was news over the weekend that New Zealand on Air will fund a made-for-TV movie about the Len Brown affair with Bevan Chuang when he was the mayor of Auckland. Again more pretty harmless entertainment. But how much should the government reach into our media landscape? 

I ask this in the light of the Public Interest Journalism Fund which was announced in May. There’s $55 million in the pot, and applications are now open. So what is public interest journalism? Ah, there’s the first major issue. Surely, it is journalism that the public is interested in, the public being the wider population. 

But this is what the Public Interest Journalism Fund must achieve. 

  1. Seek to inform and engage the public about issues that affect a person’s right to flourish within our society and impact on society’s ability to fully support its citizens. 

  2. Provide accurate, accountable, and fair coverage that reflects and empowers all sectors of the community upholding the public’s right to know. 

  3. Actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner. 

  4. Reflect the cultural diversity of New Zealand. 

  5. Encourage a robust and sustainable media sector. 

For example, public interest journalism coverage could include content that: 

  • Meets the definition of Māori and Iwi journalism (detail on this below) 

  • Explains complex institutions, or issues 

  • Investigates and reports on, and explains, public policy or matters of public significance 

  • Reports from perspectives including Pacific, Pan-Asian, women, youth, children, persons with  disabilities, other ethnic communities 

  • Engages citizens in public debate 

  • Informs democratic decision-making 

  • Holds power (in its various forms) to account 

  • Covers issues and sectors of society not currently being provided.  

So that’s $55 million of your money going to journalism - or should that be advocacy or indoctrination projects - which must actively promote principles of partnership, participation and active protection under the treaty. 

What this criteria is saying is that there are no worthwhile subjects worthy of reporting on or investigating which do not actively promote the principles of the treaty, principles by the way, which have never actually been gazetted or formalised in our legislation. So have you thought about what this means?

Is it $55 million dollars of taxpayers money for journalism or is it for advocacy, or indoctrination, or just propaganda? Is there for instance any opportunity to ask questions and present an alternative to the government’s climate change narrative? Or its COVID-19 approach or its vaccination story or other controversial issues which don’t get an airing or space online? Is it even something that the government should be funding and approving? 

How far do you want the government in your media? Isn’t it enough that the government owns two TV companies and a radio company? How much more do they need to be in the industry? And what do you think is public interest journalism and does the mere concept of it bother you?

Catch Peter Williams every weekday from 9am on Magic Talk.