Speech: “A profession which is very hard to save”

Rt Hon Winston Peters, Leader of New Zealand First

Introduction

Good morning, and thank you for your attendance here today.

Let us start by acknowledging the work of all the media outlets and reporters, particularly the regional reporters, who have been covering this week’s tragedy at Whakaari White Island.

It further underscores the role for news media for disseminating information at times of natural disaster as we have just experienced in the Bay of Plenty, and in the lower South Island during the recent storm.

Today it is the role and function of the news media which is the topic of our discussion here today.

The Holyoake vision

One of the best formative voices on the importance of New Zealand media was the former Prime Minister Rt Hon Keith Holyoake.

In 1965, he was the champion of the News Media Ownership Bill, designed to block Rupert Murdoch’s attempted takeover of the Dominion Post.

Holyoake fought hard to protect the ownership of New Zealand media outlets.

He argued the dissemination of news media is something special, and it was more than “a biscuit factory”, as he put it.

To quote him -”it is very much in our national interest that we have our own voice or voices to express our national identity and character.”

The barriers to protect the ownership of our media organisations were broken by this country’s neo-liberal experiment, for which we still pay the price today. 

My party’s fundamental position always has been and remains that a fourth estate is essential, although sadly the news media is in dire straits.

The case for help is clear

The digital revolution has its advantages.  We only need to pick up a cell phone to see that.

But the shift in advertising revenue from the traditional outlets to Google and Facebook is suffocating the industry. 

Advertising revenue is bleeding out of our newspapers, numerous community titles have been closed or are being sold, and regional reporter numbers have dropped dramatically.

Newshub can’t find a buyer while TVNZ is not paying a dividend to the Crown.

It is not clear that a country of our size is coping with the digital media shift.

Once the news print businesses were economic powerhouses, now they appear to be sunset industries.

The clickbait is this – our fourth estate is collapsing

And, to play this phrase back to the media, we must speak truth to power.

The consequences of the digital shift for quality journalism is at times, manifestly obvious on the front pages and websites.

As parliamentarians we accept scrutiny.

We are also in a very good position to assess the ebb and flow of our news media. 

And the tide is low.

There are trends in journalism which are not serving New Zealand well.

Our reporters are younger, the depth of experience is shallower.

To say you can walk off the street to become a press gallery reporter maybe an exaggeration, but not much of one.

Our reporters are underpaid and overloaded. Juggling cameras, live blogging, while focused on writing snap stories creates a focus for breaking news not thinking news.

Reporters draw fast to spout their personal opinion. Few will tell you what an event means.

And our media walk through the door with a predetermined narrative and then repeatedly ask questions to fit that narrative. That is called confirmation bias, and it is prolific.

Our society should be worried about the currency and influence of our news.

It is not an exaggeration to question the viability of the fourth estate function.

There are genuine questions about the currency of our journalism.

Can we be confident our media will enhance reasoned democratic debate, or is a steady trend of celebrity, crime, and shark stories causing our population to disengage?

Many of our news outlets give the same platform to a social media blogger, an activist self -titled as a journalist, a public relations consultant who provides political commentary, and those titled as political editors. 

Credibility is diluted. The boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred.

Even so, as Thomas Jefferson said in 1799, “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

The New Zealand First position

But there’s an old Maori proverb about when you come to the marae to criticise, you better make sure your own marae is in order. 

Our media outlets are defensive about critiques of their journalism. 

And as one who has experienced the ravages of journalism, let me tell you all that sometimes you have to accept criticism goes with the territory.

Many reasons exist for media outlets to reflect on their own performance. 

Fortunately, there have been welcomed examples of small New Zealand owned websites covering domestic issues, foreign affairs topics, and prepared to tackle the difficult issues of foreign influence.

Yet, increasingly media outlets are turning to the government seeking solutions. The struggling business models are proving difficult to sustain.

It is timely to set out the New Zealand First view and signal the approach it will adopt as the Coalition partner. This is for two reasons: first we hold genuine concerns, second there are a range of decisions government will need to take in the near future.

As Holyoake articulated many years ago, there is a strong case to protect our media because of the role it plays in shaping our society and national identity.

A free, open and independent news media in New Zealand as an essential part of a healthy democracy. Any offshore editorial influence in any media entity should be regarded with deep concern. 

It is, or course, a profession which is very hard to save.

But not withstanding all the abuses my political party has faced it is a party which can rise above the clamour. As Michelle Obama said in 2008, when they go low we go high. And if you believe in a free press then you have to do what is it the right thing.

Public Media

The future of TVNZ and Radio NZ passes a public interest test.

It has been New Zealand First’s policy position to support a strengthened public sector media.

For this reason we welcome the initiative of Minister Faafoi to progress work in this area.  Both coalition partners are in agreement on the need to both protect and futureproof TVNZ and Radio NZ.

While the overarching direction has been set, the means of delivering the best outcome will still require a serious volume of work.

Many questions on design and cost are still to be addressed.

So from my party’s perspective will be looking to assess what future proposals emerge to ensuring it is what was intended when the process was started.

After all, the objective is not to design new organisations but to find ways to protect and develop serious debate, and quality journalism.

NZME and Stuff Kiwishare

There are range of matters which are going before government which require serious thought and discussion.

A pressing matter is a fresh bid by NZME to purchase Stuff from Australia’s Nine. 

A proposal has been put for the Crown to participate through a “Kiwishare” arrangement in a new subsidiary containing Stuff and all its editorial staff.

It is not lost on the government that recently one of the main websites has been running items on promoting journalism.

As well, there has also been leaked information on a potential NZME takeover of Stuff, which also resulted in a statement to the share market about the potential bid, and the “Kiwishare” proposal.

It’s difficult to assess if this recent surge in coverage is national debate, or self-interested exposition, either way it’s an invitation for my party to articulate its view of the important decisions to be taken by Government.

The “Kiwishare” proposal is worth considering carefully.

The history of the NZME-Stuff takeover attempts are well documented, and also have faced several stages of judicial review.

For these reasons we have been cautious about supporting a proposal which could be perceived as a “work around” of previous Commerce Commission rulings.

However, as Coalition partner we have ultimately determined we will support the proposal should Minister Faafoi seek to advance it through the Cabinet decision making process.  

There are several features to the potential arrangement which we see merit with.

As part of the Kiwishare concept a set number of regional print titles will remain open and operating during the duration of the agreement.

This will assist in stemming the dramatic decline in the number of reporter jobs over the immediate future.

The Kiwishare proposal would not cost the Crown and taxpayer to join.

And more significantly the NZME and Stuff subsidiary will still have to follow the usual process and seek Commerce Commission approval.

The Kiwishare proposal as part of a NZME takeover of Stuff is a major step in our media landscape.

It has drawn careful consideration by my party but sometimes you have to back what is in front of you. 

The NZME proposal is in the greater public and national interest.

And New Zealand First, as Government Coalition Partner, will support the proposal for Kiwishare in a future Stuff subsidiary.

 

winston.peters@parliament.govt.nz

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