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Melissa Lee in 2020 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Melissa Lee in 2020 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

MediaMarch 4, 2024

Turns out Melissa Lee did give a one-on-one interview about Newshub after all

Melissa Lee in 2020 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Melissa Lee in 2020 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The broadcasting minister has been accused of not giving interviews since last week’s news about the impending closure of Newshub. That’s not entirely true – Lee spoke to The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive on Wednesday evening. Here’s what she said.

Melissa Lee has a lot on her plate right now. The broadcasting minister’s only been in the job since November and is now being called on to save the entire media industry. 

Last week’s Newshub news pushed Lee into the spotlight in a way she probably hasn’t experienced yet. It was widely observed that she floundered on the day, appearing glib and cold as she reacted to the news that about 300 people, including many of the country’s top journalists, were soon to be out of work. 

In the days since, we’ve heard less and less from Lee on the subject. While she has fronted journalists on parliament’s black and white tiles, and did face questions from Labour’s Reuben Davidson in question time on Thursday, she has otherwise been largely absent from the conversation around Newshub. She didn’t, for example, turn up on RNZ’s Mediawatch over the weekend, nor did she make any appearances on radio or television this morning. Labour’s Willie Jackson, the former broadcasting minister, told The Spinoff that Lee had been “missing in action”, adding today to RNZ that “in this industry’s darkest hour, the minister is nowhere to be seen”.

He continued: “No interview with you, no interview with anyone.”

We can expect to hear more from Lee this week, as it’s reported she will bring to cabinet today suggested pathways for supporting the New Zealand media. We might hear more about this at Christopher Luxon’s weekly post-cabinet press conference this afternoon. 

In the meantime, it turns out Lee did give at least one interview on the Newshub situation and the state of our media before the weekend: with The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive. In it, she appeared more sympathetic to the plight of the media and the potential job losses at Three. She was also less derisive of proposed efforts to assist media outlets, like the former government’s Fair Digital Media Bargaining Bill, and signalled that she was considering other options.

As is common practice, only parts of Lee’s interview were used last week in a piece by Greive about the Newshub closure. But given she’s made so few other public statements on the matter, here’s the whole thing (briefly edited for clarity).

– Stewart Sowman-Lund

Duncan Greive: Was there any consideration given to trying to forestall [the closure] or see if there were another path that could be taken that could lead to Newshub or Three surviving in the local marketplace?

Melissa Lee: To tell you the truth, it was a shock for me too having to come to terms with how this was going to be received by the staffers. [That] was very high on my mind… I had a conversation with the prime minister’s press secretary and I had a conversation with the chief of staff. I didn’t actually have a conversation with the prime minister until this morning [Wednesday]. So it was actually more about concern for the staff, concern for what it would actually mean for Newshub, it was just that. So yeah, I’m still processing it. 

DG: I can imagine. One thing that sort of stuck out to me is that the Newshub press gallery team is obviously such a big part of their identity and a big part of the gallery. Does it give you any disquiet as a longtime MP that in terms of the sort of big mainstream television news, there will only be a government owned channel after June if the proposal goes through?

ML: Well, I think, when you actually talk in terms of television there’s only going to be one television as in mainstream. I mean, there’s also Sky. But, I think more and more, the media landscape is actually changing and I think that’s what I actually said when I was stopped at the black and white tiles as I was heading into the house. It’s not just television… actually radio is doing video, as well as newspapers are doing video. Everything is actually becoming a more multimedia platform. 

And everyone’s going online, and actually becoming more digital. I think that is the signal that perhaps we are behind the times… I think this is not just a New Zealand problem, but it’s a global problem that the media is actually facing. And, you know, in terms of plurality, I have to say that I’m actually quite happy with the plurality we’ve got. We’ve got great journalists at many different media companies who actually do a great job. As an MP, I may not sometimes like the kind of interviews that I get, or how it’s actually portrayed sometimes, but I think they do a fantastic job. And I just hope that the public supports the media that we have. I think… there’s been some issues in terms of the PIJF [the Public Interest Journalism Fund] and how that actually turned the media into so-called “not the trustworthy types”. And I think that needs to be something that the media needs to navigate as well. And, yeah, I feel for the people who got the news [on Wednesday], it must be devastating for them.

DG: Yeah, I agree. You say that you hope that people support the media we have, but isn’t that sort of part of the problem? Historically, they didn’t need to, advertisers supported the media we have, including government advertisers. But that is the big thing that’s changed. Does this give you any pause in terms of the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, in terms of introducing another mechanism to support the production of news?

ML: Glen [Kyne, Warner Bros Discovery boss] also told me that the Fair Digital Media Bargaining Bill would have made no difference to their decisions. So it’s a bit too late for Newshub, I think. I’m not going to comment about that, because I already said in opposition [that] I oppose the bill, because I didn’t think it would actually do what apparently the bill is supposed to do. 

But I didn’t stop the bill, because I thought that it needed to go through a proper select committee process. And I’m waiting for the results of the select committee process, and I will actually consider it after the select committee process has actually finished. 

But, when I was stopped a couple of weeks ago, by the media, they asked me, do you support the bill in its current form? I said, “No, I don’t, because I don’t believe that it can produce what people think it will.” So, you know, I will have to think about how it can actually be amended, potentially, if it does go through. I’m also trying to find some other way that we could potentially help the media, but you know, it’s not something that can be drummed up overnight.

DG: I think there are some criticisms of the bill which seem fair. But if not the bill, then what? Have you seen any other mechanisms for supporting the media that don’t introduce further complications, like the PIJF, or similar? 

ML: That’s what I’m looking at. I haven’t got an answer yet. If I had an answer, I might have announced it. I am looking at options. And I mean, there’s always options. But in terms of the bill, look, I mean, it doesn’t include AI. And Stuff has been quite prominent in their criticism of how AI has been scraping their news. And the bill doesn’t include that. I mean, you know, if anything that should potentially be included. 

Anyway, there’s quite a few things… The bill’s not perfect. But I’m not criticising. As I said, I will hear what the select committee comes back with, and I will make a decision after that. 

DG: Just one more question. But I wondered if you could, beyond the thoughts for the journalists and their jobs, offer a recollection or a sort of requiem for Newshub, in terms of your experience of it, your interactions with it, your sense of what it was as an organisation.

ML:  There are still quite a few weeks of consultation that the company is actually going through, I don’t know where that’s actually going to land… I’ve always enjoyed Newshub, I think they are fair and they are tough. We have great journalists working there. My heart goes out to them. Their future is uncertain, and I feel for them.

But that also brings a flashback to, I think in 1990, and I think it might have been the honourable Maurice Williamson, who actually made it possible for an overseas entity to buy TV3, otherwise it would have gone belly up back then I think.

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