Paul Goldsmith against a grey background with bold pink stripes and a hand holding a phone
Media minister Paul Goldsmith (Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller)

MediaJuly 3, 2024

An abrupt U-turn from National, a brave new world for news in New Zealand

Paul Goldsmith against a grey background with bold pink stripes and a hand holding a phone
Media minister Paul Goldsmith (Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller)

Five crucial questions about an epochal day for news media in Aotearoa, asked and answered by Duncan Greive.

What just happened?

Yesterday might just prove one of the most momentous days in the history of news media in New Zealand. A little after 9am, National switched from a policy of deep scepticism towards the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill to embracing it. Media minister Paul Goldsmith says he chose this path to “ensure that New Zealanders continue to have access to our stories and our music in an ever more cluttered media landscape”. Act remains staunchly opposed, and has invoked the coalition’s “agree to disagree” clause – but the fact the bill was brought forward by Labour’s Willie Jackson means it should easily pass. 

The bill is a direct descendent of legislation passed in 2021 in Australia, and forces the international tech giants that carry news content and dominate the internet to either come to deals with local news media, or submit to binding arbitration. There was one major change announced yesterday: to make the bill even more closely mirror the Australian legislation – an adroit political move, which demands the tech companies treat New Zealand and Australia as a common news market.

What this means in practice is that there is a greater concentration of power and discretion in the minister’s office. Goldsmith as minister must “designate” tech platforms to have them captured by the bill. In Australia, thus far this has been limited to Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram) and Alphabet (owner of Google and YouTube), the two largest players in digital advertising and news distribution.

The move allows Goldsmith to follow Australia’s lead in designating other platforms – with the likes of ByteDance (TikTok) and Microsoft (LinkedIn and Bing) looming as potential targets. While he removed language around AI from the bill, this approach means New Zealand retains the ability to designate the likes of OpenAI (which has signed multiple deals with overseas news media) in future.

Has anything else changed?

Goldsmith gave a press conference in the reception area of an MBIE office in Auckland, tellingly just down the hill from the headquarters of NZME and TVNZ. They’re two of the biggest beneficiaries of the changes announced yesterday. NZME has a large network of digital news providers, including the NZ Herald, BusinessDesk and Newstalk ZB, and will join the likes of Stuff, The Spinoff, RNZ and Whakaata Māori in finding relief from the bill. (It’s notable that in Australia, small digital publishers have come out in opposition to the legislation, and been unable to get deals with the big tech companies).

TVNZ gets all that, along with a bigger boost again. Along with relief for 1News, it also received welcome news around Shortland Street. The long-running soap is a huge driver of viewership for TVNZ2 and TVNZ+, but falling ratings had risked its cancellation. Goldsmith announced yesterday that shows of major cultural importance with budgets of more than $10m – a category of one – would now be eligible for the screen production rebate. The government also removed outmoded restrictions on advertising on Sunday mornings and some public holidays. 

Goldsmith also signalled continuing support for uncontroversial pan-media programmes like Open Justice and Local Democracy Reporting, and said he had “spoken to NZ On Air about the role it can play in supporting local news and current affairs. They have committed to reporting back to cabinet on progress by the end of the year.”

Michael Galvin as the iconic Dr Chris Warner in Shortland Street (Photo: South Pacific Pictures / Design: Tina Tiller)

Why did National make this call?

Act’s David Seymour laid out his position today, saying that “the Fair Digital News Bargaining bill will not solve the fundamental challenges facing traditional media: it’s never been easier to share information online, but people don’t want the product on offer.” Until very recently, this was National’s position too. A year ago its media spokesperson was Melissa Lee. From opposition, she described this bill as “effectively a tax by the Labour government on big tech companies”. 

She was fired from cabinet after a tone-deaf response to a string of cataclysmic news media redundancies, culminating in the loss of historic news shows from TVNZ and the total shutdown of Newshub. It allowed for the installation of a more senior cabinet minister in Goldsmith, who has wasted little time in reversing Lee’s position. Effectively, National had a choice between the free-market instincts of Act and the more nationalist position of NZ First. It chose the Winston Peters path.

The move is not without risk. The tech giants are strongly opposed to the legislation. Google has made threats to leave, saying “if passed, the bill is so unworkable for Google that we would have to reassess the manner in which it operates in New Zealand”. Meta has gone further, and really has pulled news from its platforms in Canada, where similar legislation has been deployed and is likely to do so in Australia. Were either of those things to happen, it’s possible that there would be a public backlash to a government that passed such legislation. 

However, Google has yet to make good its threats anywhere else, and the alternative is not risk-free either. By failing to pass the legislation, the government would likely face further rounds of closures and redundancies within the news media. Goldsmith appears to have decided that the political risks are modulated by tightly tying New Zealand’s fate to Australia’s. If big tech’s reprisals are spread across both countries, it’s hard for either government to be seen as the villain – and big tech will find it more difficult to threaten to leave the combined market than had each country taken separate paths.

It’s also material that a new government can, with the stroke of a pen, be seen as having listened to the pain emanating from news media. It could be hoping that by switching to support the bill, some of the poor media relations of this government’s first six months of this government will be modulated. That might prove the biggest ask of all.

Image: Tina Tiller

How soon will this play out – and what might come next?

“All of these short-term measures will be in effect by the end of this year,” said Goldsmith in the press release announcing the changes. “On a wider reform programme, proposals for a truly modern and streamlined regulatory landscape are currently under development and the government will be announcing next steps later in 2024.”

Tellingly, while he made no specific announcements yesterday, Goldsmith did say that “another thing that we’re keen to work our way through is, how can we encourage the streamers to have more New Zealand content as part of their mix?” The screen production sector launched a campaign to push for action on local content for international streaming services last year, and it will be heartened by this signal. It also suggests that the strongly rumoured merger of NZ On Air and the Film Commission might form part of the next stage of these reforms.

Would this have changed the fate of Newshub, or the 1News shows?

The scene at yesterday’s press conference was deeply poignant. A number of questions were posed by a reporter from Newshub – an organisation that ceases to exist at 7pm on Friday. That symbolised the stakes here, and the urgency that underpins these discussions. Even if National had a second route – a digital advertising levy, say, as has been mooted by some – by the time it was introduced to parliament, hundreds more roles might have been lost.

There are dozens of news media workers who have recently finished work at TVNZ, or will finish at Newshub on Friday. For them National’s change of heart might seem too little, too late. However given the vast scale of the losses TVNZ is facing, and Three’s parent companies have sustained for years, it’s unlikely that this move would have changed the outcome for those companies. It’s important to note that the biggest of these firms (Google) has already signed deals with many New Zealand publishers, including NZME, Stuff, TVNZ, RNZ and The Spinoff. This means some of the law’s benefit is already baked into the current media system.

The advertising market remains profoundly subdued, and this bill does not replace advertising as the largest funder of news media, particularly for television. But it does provide an opening – a financial connection between the big tech platforms that distribute news, and the organisations that create it. This might over time help build a sustainability for local news media – one that has been absent since search and social rose to dominate the internet in the 00s, and allow for a new AI era to rise without causing the same harms.

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