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.


Phil said…
I know, and agree. But what to do when your media is commercially driven and no quality non commercial public TV network?
bsprout said…
Change the Government, Phil, to one that supports well funded and independent public broadcasting in 2017. Until then, support what's left.

David Farrar reckons that the MSM is already turning against National and we still actually have good journalists within it. National's arrogance is increasing and many of their stupid decisions (or lack of them) are coming home to roost. The housing crisis, child poverty, the deficit and not achieving their much repeated goals (the surplus) will all be too obvious to ignore.

Already we have Matthew Hooton and Cameron Slater sensing a crumbling house of cards that they are beginning to distance themselves from. Despite the damage National is doing, we just need a little patience and make sure we watch Campbell Live as much as we can to make him too popular to dump. We're not totally down and out ;-)

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