In 2020 the pandemic briefly made the media central to our politics. A debate three years on shows how much that has changed.
If you want to know just how far media has fallen as an area of interest for our political class, here are some realities to consider. Act’s broadcasting spokesperson is leaving parliament, and the party has issued just a single press release on the subject in 2023. That’s still one better than National, which has had nothing to say on the subject this year. Te Pāti Māori ask only that journalists employed by the state have “basic fluency” in te reo Māori, with little policy beyond that. The Greens have a much more built-out platform, but still list Gareth Hughes as the relevant MP, despite his having left parliament in 2020.
Labour has been traditionally the most active party in this area, and is the only one to list a policy on the Policy.nz site – where most major areas have been fulsomely detailed by all parties. It is to “continue to support Māori media”. NZ First, meanwhile, makes no mention of broadcasting or media at all on its policy platform, considering it less significant than advocating for a Dargaville Aerodrome. This is not to say that there is no policy from those parties – just that its prominence is buried deep and (the Greens aside) barely available on their own platforms. This despite a sector in slow-rolling crisis, with all major commercially-funded media making deep cuts in 2023.
Perhaps the most significant verdict on the importance of the sector came at a debate held by lobby group Better Public Media at a community hall in Grey Lynn last night. Of the parties likely to be in parliament after the next election, just three showed up. They were NZ First’s Jenny Marcroft, The Greens’ Ricardo Menendez March and Labour’s broadcasting minister Willie Jackson. Te Pāti Māori, Act and National were all absent at the only pre-election debate covering media, the medium by which we seek to understand one another, and what’s happening in this world.
Still, an antagonistic opening address perhaps explained why some parties stayed away. Better Public Media is is a lobby group formed from the battle to save TVNZ7 in 2010, and has a very specific idea of what public media might be, one informed by an almost Muldoonist nostalgia for 1970s TVNZ. This is part of the problem with the term “media” itself – the same word naturally encompasses everything from a TikTok of a ram raid to a PS5 game to an Avantdale Bowling Club single and the 6pm news. It’s a lot.
Better Public Media’s Myles Thomas has a very specific vision, though, and made an opening address in memory of early member David Beatson. It consisted of a lengthy broadside against commercial media, which he described as “shallow and vacuous”, along with a “disaster for democracy”. He went on to opine that the “National Party hates public media, because they get nicer treatment on commercial news”, which hardly stands up against weeks of rolling coverage of National’s disinclination to release costings for its foreign buyers’ tax. Thomas did propose a levy as a way of depoliticising public media funding. This is a decent idea – if only it hadn’t come in an extremely politicised package.
This set the stage for a debate which was unavoidably notable for its absences. Were National, Act and Te Pāti Māori to have fronted, there would at least have been some disagreements and differences in philosophy. Instead we were treated to an extended set of broad agreement that various ideas were “worth looking into”.
This is not to suggest the night wasn’t grimly entertaining – it would have made a well-plotted scene in a mockumentary covering the current state of New Zealand’s media ecosystem. A community hall, a few dozen people in the audience, with the two parties that are, on polling, likely to form the nucleus of the next government just not there at all.
Willie Jackson leaned into the absurdity, saying, apparently in earnest, that “Grey Lynn is a stunning example of the diversity of New Zealand – but is Grey Lynn represented in our media? I don’t think so.” It’s so obvious as to barely need noting, but for the avoidance of doubt: Grey Lynn might have produced more of New Zealand’s recent drama and comedy than the rest of New Zealand combined.
Jackson is a very entertaining speaker, and passionate about local media. Sometimes, though, you wonder how much of it he actually consumes. His favourite broadcasters – Mihingarangi Forbes, Julian Wilcox, John Campbell – are all exceptional, but all got their start in the 90s. He complained about the lack of diversity and Te Reo on New Zealand television. He also complained about Celebrity Treasure Island, a show which features a wildly diverse cast and, partly by casting Tāme Iti, more Te Reo than almost anything else on primetime.
He did correctly note that the number of journalists employed in New Zealand is plummeting, and point to Labour’s digital bargaining bill as being part of a solution for that. Unlike the PIJF, which ended up eroding trust in New Zealand media, the bill is well-crafted and universally approved by New Zealand’s commercial and public media – which makes Melissa Lee’s opposition to it even more inexplicable.
Jackson was followed by Ricardo Menendez March, who unlike Hughes is the Greens’ broadcasting spokesperson. He is around half Jackson’s age, and had a more contemporary sense of our media environment, but his praise of ethnic media for “centring the voices of specific communities” in response to the floods felt oddly narrow. It is depressingly common for media to only be valued during a crisis (see also: Covid), with less consideration given to its ability to survive between them. He also blamed National’s “dog whistle politics” for the demise of the RNZ-TVNZ merger, a hard position to sustain given Labour’s absolute majority.
Oddly, the most impressive and informed speaker was NZ First’s Jenny Marcroft. Oddly because beyond the absence of any public facing policy, her own leader is famously hostile to media, and just the day before had openly threatened to take the broadcasting portfolio in retaliation for what he perceived, wrongly, as impertinent questions from Q+A’s Jack Tame. Yet Marcroft might be the single person in politics best able to wrestle with the reality of what ails the media, in part because she really understands what’s going on in there, having worked briefly at Today FM (its fate is a sad cypher for the business realities of local media) during her time away from politics.
She endorsed the news bargaining bill and the call for a telecommunications levy to help fund public media, pointing out that NZ First had campaigned on a version of that in 2017. She offered a nuanced critique of diversity in our media, saying her daughter’s very white journalism class showed part of the issue. Most tellingly, right at the end of her opening, she dropped in that NZ First wants a Royal Commission of Inquiry into “media bias”, a Republican talking point she seemed mortified to even have to say aloud.
Marcroft was largely conciliatory, saying Jackson had done “a good job” – and he is likely the most interested and energetic minister local media has had in a decade. Yet he also seems to have a view excessively informed by his own years in the sector, when local media commanded almost all local audiences and reaped the financial benefits. Now user generated content delivered by giant tech platforms captures an ever growing share of younger audiences, and corresponding ad budgets. Yet despite their scale dwarfing the combined size of local media, there is no minister or specific regulation for the likes of Google, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok.
This issue is the heart of what bedevils local media, and no one on stage or off has anything resembling a joined up plan to address that. While all three spoke well at times, and clearly care about the sector, it still feels like there is no political will to properly address the tectonic changes which have happened to consumption and distribution of media. Instead, the absence of parties representing more than 50% of recent polling told a powerful story. Whatever is bedevilling New Zealand’s media, it’s going to have to figure out the solution on its own.