Sunday, April 12, 2015

The end of journalism as a public service?

The possible axing of Campbell Live has sparked another debate about the role of journalism in New Zealand and the conflict between public service and commercial interests. There has been a steady erosion of robust and informative main stream media (MSM) journalism in New Zealand over the past decade or so. I believe this is partly because of advances in technology, but mostly a shift in values and priorities for our news and current events providers.

I have seen a decline in news reporting and journalism in Invercargill over the last thirty years and it has been especially noticeable over the last two elections. The Southland Times has existed since 1862 and still operates from the same building it built in 1908. It was once a family owned business and did all its own printing. It is now owned by the Australian Corporation, Fairfax, and is printed in Dunedin. Staff numbers have been cut to the extent that the 107 year old building is probably bigger than its staff require and journalists are no longer available to report on weekend events. There are now few experienced journalists employed by the Southland Times with any great institutional knowledge or having lived long enough in the province to bring any sense of perspective to their local stories.

In 2011 there was a dedicated political journalist who covered the election campaign in reasonable depth. The Editor also looked at all the issues confronting the province and chose water quality as the number one concern. All candidates were provided with ample opportunity to present their party's policies on water management. Invercargill people were well informed, through good investigative journalism, on water quality and all candidates had opportunities to get their messages across. There was also some critical analysis of party policy and candidate performance.

In 2014 a political journalist was initially employed and interviewed me at length (as the Green Party candidate) but then shortly left and the interview was never published. There was no single journalist covering the campaign from then on and one of the dominant elements of the coverage was a regular feature where people were asked in cafes around the province who they were voting for. The key issues for Southland weren't identified, there was no analysis of policy and very little examination of candidates' performance. Political reporting now appears to concentrate on public views and polls rather than providing useful information and analysis.

The local TV Company (CUE TV) did have an informed and enthusiastic reporter and there was some good coverage of the campaign but, as far as I can tell, few people watched their local news programme. CUE TV is now abandoning its regional services  and will just focus on the production aspect of its business. The journalist I referred to now works for Venture Southland.

The Invercargill SIT's Peter Arnett School of Journalism is closing from next year, reflecting a nationwide drop in students interested in journalism. There are much fewer employment opportunities for journalists and courses have lost support.

CareersNZ states, "Chances of getting a job as a journalist are poor due to high competition for a limited number of vacancies." Experienced journalists are holding fast to their jobs as budgets tighten and they are less likely to get jobs elsewhere. Cheaper, less experienced journalists appear to be favoured when vacancies occur. The only growth area for experienced journalists now is in PR and media consultancy and for those genuinely interested in news and investigative journalism there is little work available. The Government now spends more on media advisors or spin doctors than policy analysts and there are more job opportunities working for corporates than investigating concerning commercial activities.

Closing down TVNZ 7 meant the removal of the only publicly available channel dedicated to information and education in New Zealand and made us the only OECD country where all public broadcasting must have a commercial focus. Now that we have gone down the line of chasing viewer numbers and popularising programming, there has been the inevitable dumbing down of content to fit the lowest common denominator. This has led to the extraordinary situation where the behaviour of two judges in a talent competition captured much greater media attention than sending troops to Iraq. Popular human interest stories, often generated through commercial manipulation, supplant stories of real national importance.

The current news media culture plays into the hands of the current Government who rely on the fact that any negative press has a limited life and investigative journalism into issues of genuine significance is minimal. When the GCSB bill was being progressed Key suggested that the recreational snapper fishing quota dominated public attention more. He even had the gall to suggest that it would be better for journalists to focus on the fish than our surveillance legislation.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager has been dismissed by the Government as a left-wing conspiracy theorist despite his research accuracy and international reputation, while 'shock jock' blogger Cameron Slater is treated as journalist and wins media awards when he ignores most ethical constraints that journalists generally adhere to.  Truthfulness, objectivity and accuracy are some of the elements expected from good journalism, but the rise and power of the likes of Slater has shifted expectations. Our Prime Minister has effectively endorsed Slater's approach with his direct relationship and his acceptance of gutter journalism as the new normal.
Campbell Live, has survived as one of the few TV news programmes that genuinely investigates social, political and environment issues with a public service ethos. It also ironic that it is MediaWorks, a commercial broadcaster, has ended up providing what TVNZ has ceased to do. I can see why there are doubts around its viability if the commercial logistics no longer exist as it is actually the role of our public broadcaster to produce such programmes.

It was interesting that David Farrar has presented an apparent media shift against the National Government and shortly afterwards we learn Campbell Live's days are numbered. I am not a conspiracy theorist (and the two events are probably not related), but I do know that National manages negative press in a personal way and generally attacks the messenger rather than the message. National (and MP Todd Barclay) should be reminded that although Campbell has been a thorn in their side for some time, his interview with Helen Clark regarding the Corngate saga demonstrates his apolitical approach. Campbell does tend to focus on the issues, unlike others who front news programmes and wear their political bias like neon flashing badges.

National Radio (or Radio New Zealand National as it is currently titled) remains our only true public broadcaster of mainly current events and educational programmes and it has had to deal with ongoing budget cuts through a funding freeze. Despite the quality of their news and current events programmes, National Radio has a much smaller audience than TVNZ and television still dominates as the main source of news for most New Zealanders. What Campbell live has suffered from is the fact that New Zealanders still favour publicly funded TV for their news coverage and tend not to change channels afterwards. Also many who are interested in current events and news now access the material, including Campbell Live, online and at their own convenience.

NZ on Air has a commitment to support high quality and factual programmes whether it be through Media Works or TVNZ and this fund holder does provide some compensation for the lack of a fully funded broadcasting channel. The NZ on Air funded series fronted by Nigel Latta, The Hard Stuff (as one example), provided useful information on the state of our nation. However, the occasional informative documentary is no match for a channel fully dedicated to serving the public's interests in an ongoing manner.

It is a win win for this Government when they can reduce the media scrutiny of their policies and activities under the guise of fiscal prudence and commercial realities. Public service comes at a cost and it appears that well funded and independent public broadcasting is no longer necessary or affordable. When corruption and abuse of privilege are becoming growing issues in our country our Fourth Estate has become a weakened force.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Some Worrying Numbers...

55 Maui's Dolphins left and the Government has opened up 25% of their sanctuary for oil exploration.

14.6C the average temperature for 2014, the hottest on record and 0.69C above the 20th Century average.

99 M3+ earthquakes in central and eastern United States between 2009 and 2013. There were only 21 between 1973 and 2008 and the number and severity of earthquakes is increasing. While the oil industry is claiming there is no proven relationship between the increase in earthquakes and the increase in fracking, there is evidence that says otherwise.

$182 million loss posted for Solid Energy for 2014, down from $335 million in 2013. The SOE still owes $300 million to various banks that was due to be paid off by 2016. The Chairwoman Pip Dunphy has resigned because she believes the company is not viable, but Bill English thinks otherwise.

$1.9 million a year to help feed hungry children ($9.5 million over 5 years).

$1 million budgeted to cover annual travel perks for retired MPs.

4th year of California's drought. The state is the food basket for the US and 80% of its water is used for agriculture.

$6.1 billion predicted reduction in farm income after the boom season of 2013/14. The farmgate milk price has almost dropped by half, falling from a high of $8.40 to $4.70.

11,700 Christchurch earthquake claims still to be resolved by EQC, 4 years after the major event. These are mainly the most severe cases and many families have been suffering in substandard conditions for all that time. There seem to be some crazy priorities in the rebuild.

52C or above is now coloured incandescent purple on Australian weather maps as these temperatures are expected to become more frequent.

$711,000 is the median house price in Auckland, 9% higher than the previous year.

$19,700 is the median income for Mangere-Otahuhu in the 2013 census. The 51,000 people living in the board area have seen their annual income drop by $200 since 2006.

$110,000 increase in pay for Southern DHB CEO. This was a 27.8% increase.

1,793 children in Whangarei received food assistance at least once a week. This is despite the Prime Minister claiming only a small number of children need support nationwide.

244 children killed by US drone attacks and 1122 civilians since 2004.

33,360 Auckland dwellings were listed as unoccupied in the 2013 census, while 11,200 more houses were needed to meet demand in 2014. Is there really a housing shortage, or poor management of existing stock?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Invercargill to become New Zealand's Capital City

At a specially called press conference this morning, Prime Minister John Key announced that Invercargill was to become New Zealand's new capital. The news was unexpected as there had been no awareness that moving the capital was even being considered.

Key explained the need for secrecy was necessary until the final decision was made because the Government realized that a more public process would have led to parochialism and potential friction between provinces.

"The decision needed to be based around the facts, important security considerations and future proofing the seat of government," Key stated.

A detailed press release was distributed and the following is a summary of the information provided:

Recent seismic research had led scientists to believe that a substantial earthquake on the Wairarapa Fault (at the level of 1855 quake) was imminent and the existing parliament buildings were at risk.

The Beehive building has proved problematic for some time and constructing something new had been planned under the previous Labour Government.

Building a totally new capital on a new site (Canberra) was briefly considered but deemed expensive and problematic. All New Zealand cities with populations over 50,000 were considered.

The city that met the majority of the criteria determined as vital for our future capital was Invercargill:
  • a low earthquake risk.
  • an international capable airport that was the closest to Australia.
  • Climate change would mean that Invercargill is more likely to retain a moderate climate for longer.
  • Antarctica was seen as an area for likely future development (as populations shift due to climate change) and Invercargill was the closest city.
  • Invercargill had the greatest potential for development and expansion with its wide streets and surrounding flat ground.
  • a major port was nearby (Bluff).
  • is the centre of an economic hub (the province earns 12% of the nation's export income).
  • proximity to Queenstown, New Zealand's premier tourist destination, was considered useful when entertaining visiting VIPs. 
  • largely intact Victorian architecture provided the city a with sense of history and permanence in keeping with a seat of government.
  • has international recognition through movies such as The Worlds Fastest Indian and as a popular tourist destination.
The 1922 Parliament House would be retained and shifted to the new site and the second stage (that was planned but never built) would be constructed.

After fielding a flood of questions Key announced that the proposed timeline for the shift would not be available until after midday April 1.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

National's Bulldozer Lurches Onwards

The National Government barely paused after their humiliating by-election loss in Northland. In his normal cavalier and dismissive manner Key shrugged off the defeat, "so I got it wrong on that one, but that's the way it goes." He immediately dropped National's bulldozer down a gear and lurched forward again.

Although National have recently been claiming that the changes to the RMA were the crucial component to solving our housing crisis, it seems they were being disingenuous. As soon as it was clear that the Government no longer had the numbers to weaken the environmental protections within the Act, the plans were promptly ditched. The speed of the reversal emphasises the fact that there were few convincing arguments to support the changes in the first place. If they were so crucial for the development of low cost housing one would have expected a more determined fight.

Rather than dwell on yet another failure National just thumbed their noses at the thousands of environmentally concerned New Zealanders who marched in Auckland and opened up over 40,000 square kilometers of our territorial waters for oil exploration and 4,000 on shore. While Simon Bridges claimed that finding new reserves of oil is important to support the transition to using cleaner energy, the main focus of this Government is still firmly on fossil fuel and pandering to oil companies.

National's bulldozer is powered by oil, milk and a cheap and powerless workforce. The effects on our environment and people to maintain its smoking and destructive progress is substantial and to limit dissent and protest the true extent of the damage being done is deliberately hidden.

National's bulldozer is always preceded by its growing team of PR people who shape and spin its image before it comes into view. Members of the same team follow the bulldozer to cover and hide the damage from the New Zealand public.

The damage coverups are managed by hiding and withholding revealing data and information. If the public do not know the real extent of the damage caused then they will more readily accept the spin. Official Information Act requests are routinely delayed or unnecessarily refused and our Ombudsman are under-resourced for coping with the rapidly increasing workload. While the funding has increased dramatically for the PMs office, and his multiple press secretaries, Statistics NZ is laying off staff. Independent reporting on our environment, education and levels of poverty is actively discouraged.

Amy Adams has announced the areas that will be included in the next environmental report and it appears that much of the statistics directly related to the Government's drive to grow dairy production have been excluded. A comprehensive and independent review is being replaced with cherry picked statistics that have an economic rather than environmental focus.

National is relying on the fact that most of their bulldozer's emissions aren't visible and fewer people are bothered about swimming in our rivers. A considerable number of New Zealanders are falling in the path of the bulldozer and are being squashed and flattened, but because increasing numbers of them don't vote and have limited avenues for redress (legal aid has been cut by a third), they can be ignored and dismissed.

National's bulldozer lurches onwards.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Northland speaks and National still isn't listening.

Steven Joyce was interviewed on Q & A about the heavy loss National had experienced in the Northland by-election. He was challenged by Corin Dann regarding the Government's neglect of the regions. Joyce was adamant that Northland was unique and what it really needed was improved infrastructure such as roads and broadband. Joyce has a narrow, blinkered view of the world that is informed by his corporate bias and passion for roads and sadly the election defeat didn't remove his blinkers or open his eyes.

I spent a few days near Kaitaia a couple of years ago (while attending an education conference) and was able to tour the area and listen to people at the forefront of education, health and welfare. Poverty can be seen everywhere in Northland, it is evident in the housing, the health statistics and stories from local doctors like Lance O'Sullivan.

Schools struggle to meet the diverse needs of the mainly Maori communities and while there seems to be ample money to support elite private schools, Northland schools get ignored and bullied instead. Many of the successes in education in the region are due to communities doing what they can despite the Government. Kerikeri High School has lifted Maori achievement by supporting a successful programme that has had its funding cut. Much special education support, under the current system, is not directed to where there is greatest need and the likes of Kings College have greater access to services instead.

Northland has amongst the worst health statistics in the country and this is most obvious in the area of child health. Diseases most closely related to poverty are common in Northland children. Hospital admissions for: Bronchiolitis, pneumonia, bronchiectasis, pertussis, meningococcal, tuberculosis and serious skin admissions are significantly higher than the New Zealand rate. Rheumatic fever is common and tamariki Maori have a 1 in 200 chance of a damaged heart by the end of school. The KidsCan charity had to step in to ensure that Northland children got necessary prescriptions because families struggled to pay the $5 dollar charges.

Rheumatic fever in children is often related to poor and overcrowded housing and the shocking state of many Northland houses is very visible when traveling around. Many houses reflect what you would expect in third world countries, not an affluent nation like ours. While the attention is on the housing shortage in Auckland there is little being done to help upgrade the poor homes in the far north. It has since been revealed that poor maintenance has reduced the availability of state housing and this has obviously been an issue in Northland too.

Maori, in particular, have greater difficulties than most to access funding for housing and even building on their own land and this is well documented. The Greens' healthy homes scheme has had academic support for its cost benefit success and yet it still hasn't really benefited many struggling families and the poorest quality rentals. Prof Howden-Chapman's award winning research on the wellbeing of New Zealanders found that for every dollar spent on home insulation there is a four dollar return.

One of the biggest industries for Northland is forestry (covering 11% of the area) and this industry has struggled with the Government's changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The wood grown in Northland also has a higher density than elsewhere and is therefore more suited for construction and higher end uses. The lack of investment in adding value to this resource is a missed opportunity for more jobs and higher incomes.

Greater investment in eduction in Northland, especially in proven programmes like Te Kotahitanga would lift Maori achievement considerably. Fixing low quality housing and improving access to health services will save huge amounts of money in government services. While Northland has the highest unemployment rate in the country, increasing the value of benefits to what it was thirty years ago would help struggling families until the region's economy improves. Investing in greater research and development within the timber industry and strengthening of the ETS would boost one of Northland's main industries substantially.

Roads, bridges and broadband access, while useful, are hardly the main priorities for this struggling region. National still isn't listening!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

One bridge too far and one house too many

The National Government has been aware of some major issues for many years. Northland's poverty and substandard infrastructure was apparent when they first came to power in 2008 and National Ministers were given clear advice about the social housing shortage at the same time. However, the priorities for this Government have never been shaped by the advice it has been given but the agenda that it came with. Lower taxes for the rich, less regulation for businesses, more flexibility for employers and lots of new motorways to enable the growing numbers of luxury cars to travel freely.

This Government does not see supporting our most vulnerable families and children as one of its key roles and it has generally tried to shift that responsibility to the private sector and voluntary organisations. The provision of early childhood centres in less affluent communities (to enable parents to return to work) was made into a business opportunity and voluntary organisations and corporates were seen as best meeting the needs of hungry children.

The National Party and many of its supporters believe in individual responsibility and generally don't understand that the environment and society they are creating actually causes a greater number of people to lose the ability to live independently and is actually limiting choices and opportunities for our most vulnerable.

According to Paula Bennett, hungry children are the result of irresponsible parenting, not due to a low wage economy and welfare benefits that don't cover living expenses. The mantra of Bennett and her Government is that getting parents into work is the best solution for child poverty and yet while 95% of New Zealanders are employed, we still have 25% of our children suffering in relative poverty and having to live in substandard and overcrowded houses. We have the fastest growing inequality in the OECD and one of the worst records for child welfare.

The National Party's approach to the bye-election campaign actually sums up its general approach to governance. Here is an electorate that suffers more than any other from unemployment and child poverty and National decides that ten new bridges will make the biggest difference. That bridges were considered the biggest concern for Northland voters was extraordinary, but what was even more shocking was the lack of consultation. The bridges chosen came from a rough guess from the campaign team with no reference to what the NZTA considered were priorities and no thorough cost benefit analysis was involved. Bill English's explanation of the process used was embarrassing.

The National Government's management of social housing is equally as frightening as how they determined the needs of Northland. It has ignored the housing crisis for most of the past six years and refused to intervene in an overheated property market that has made us one of the most expensive countries for housing in the world.  It appears that it is more important to protect the capital gains for the most wealthy than ensure all New Zealanders had access to good homes.

The Government has attempted to justify the sale of state houses by claiming many are not meeting needs and that the Salvation Army and other non-government agencies were keen to have a role in providing social housing. Both were clearly misrepresentations of the reality. The Salvation Army had never been properly consulted and yet found themselves being promoted as having a major role in the policy. They ended up using a considerable amount of their meagre resources to investigate the logistics of managing social housing and discovered that it wasn't fiscally possible.

Bill English's claim that a third of state houses "were in the wrong place, were the wrong size or the tenancies were mismatched" has proved to be a huge exaggeration when Housing NZ's own advice did not support it. It turns out that there has been inadequate spending on maintenance and more houses are deemed unsuitable for tenancy because of that than anything else. English even tried to blame the previous Labour Government (over six years before) for the $1.2 billion worth of deferred maintenance.

Even if one regarded the provision of social housing in economic terms the advantages available to the government in terms of low cost financing and the economies of scale involved when tendering out the construction of large numbers of houses are obvious. If private developers were given the responsibility of providing low cost housing then profit, rather than social good, would drive construction and low quality homes and poorly designed communities are more likely to result.

As the justification for the sale of state houses becomes less convincing by the day, Metiria Turei was able to establish that there wasn't even an expectation that the sale of houses would be contingent on meeting the needs of low income tenants. Again the Government is more interested in supporting private sector profits than the growing social need. In 2006 1 in every 120 New Zealanders were homeless and this statistic is likely to be much worse once the 2013 census is analysed. Almost 5,000 are currently on Housing NZ's high priority waiting lists and based on the 2006 statistics probably around 40,000 New Zealanders would be considered homeless now.

I guess construction firms and developers will be rubbing their hands with glee as more opportunities fall into their ample laps and the many thousands of struggling families will just have to wait even longer to be noticed.

POSTSCRIPT: Dita Di Boni from the Herald reveals that the privatising of social housing in the UK has been a dismal failure, contrary to what Bill English has been claiming. Criticising the performance of Housing NZ, while deliberately restricting its funding for maintenance, appears to be a strategy to create a sense of failure that isn't justified. Governments are better placed to provide quality social housing than the private sector.

Friday, March 20, 2015

It's a man's world, mind the gaps...

James Brown's song It's a Man's Man's Man's World simply describes a global reality. Our economic systems and the tools and machines we use on a daily basis have been largely generated by men. The values that dominate most of the world are also male ones. This is especially true of our current Government that is very male heavy, out of the current 59 National MPs only 16 are female and only 6 in the top 20.

There is a clear difference between the previous Labour Government and this one when you look at the the influence of women. Under Helen Clark more women were able to attain leadership roles and in 2004 we were ranked 4th in the world for female representation in business management. Under National the reverse has happened we are now in the bottom twelve in the world. Over the past year alone we plummeted 13 places and now only 19% of businesses have women in senior roles.

The lack of women in management is nothing to do with ability but a combination of being in a male dominated culture where women have to work much harder to be regarded as equal and self perception that is shaped by being continually disregarded. This Forbes article on why US women struggle to achieve management roles also reflects the New Zealand situation where twice as many women now achieve bachelor degrees each year compared to men. Despite the fact that we are churning out twice as many female graduates, the work environment still values men above women and men can earn far more for similar jobs.

The National Party ridiculed Labour's attempt to have greater gender balance and described it as the 'man ban'. This simplistic attack should have shifted media attention to National's own culture where few women were represented. The Party claimed that ability, not gender, determines their list and this would naturally lead to only two conclusions: few women of ability are members of the National Party or the criteria applied to choosing candidates and list ranking are weighted towards men. I believe that both are true and the values that permeate the National Party are largely male ones.

Obviously I realise that not all men and women can be defined by narrow traits, but when one examines the record and behaviour of the National Government, traditional male values and behaviour become apparent. James Brown sings about men making the roads and National's enthusiasm for spending $13 billion on their Roads of National Significance (from a limited purse) must surely indicate a high level of testosterone in determining priorities. Many men have a fascination and love of cars that transcends their practical application and economic justification. National's financial supporters (largely rich men as there are few rich women) would be demanding good roads for their growing numbers of luxury cars and their fossil fueled status symbols.

Under this male dominated National Government roles traditionally held by women are undervalued and there is little empathy for what women and children experience on a daily or regular basis. This has resulted in yawning gaps in our support systems and protections for our most vulnerable:
This National Government's thinking and culture has been noticeably apparent during the Northland bye-election. In an electorate with unemployment at almost 20% and the highest level of child poverty in New Zealand (almost 50%), National decided that what this struggling region really needs is $60 million of new spending on wider bridges. Obviously cars are more important than kids. To support their campaign National MPs were regularly driving into Northland in a fleet of Government's a man's world indeed.