An interview widely described as a trainwreck was a missed opportunity to explain some vital reforms, writes Duncan Greive.
Thomas Coughlan did not hold back. In a surgically deft opinion piece for the NZ Herald, the site’s deputy political editor described media minister Willie Jackson’s appearance on Q+A last Sunday as “worrying”, a “trainwreck interview”, one filled with “awkward insinuations”. His recap used the word “bizarre” six times. On Monday prime minister Jacinda Ardern, after initially saying she wouldn’t comment as she hasn’t seen it, found time to watch some highlights and seemed to diplomatically concur with Coughlan. “I don’t agree with some of the comments that were made. I have spoken to the minister about the interview.”
The irony is that Jackson’s appearance was meant to be a victory lap – an opportunity for the minister to announce that New Zealand would follow Australia and Canada in demanding tech platforms like Google and Facebook fairly compensate news organisations for use of their content. That announcement got swamped in the furore over the minister’s responses to host Jack Tame’s fair questions about the function of the legislation, and particularly the argument for merging TVNZ and RNZ into a new, futureproof media organisation, ANZPM.
Much like Three Waters, the government’s media reforms are an overdue response to decaying infrastructure. And much like Three Waters, arguments over relatively arcane details now threaten to derail the whole programme. Below I’ll explain what is being done, and why this embattled legislation really matters.
Why is the government creating a new media organisation?
The successive waves of borderless internet access, user generated content, ultra-fast broadband and smartphones have fundamentally changed the way most New Zealanders consume media. We are now much more likely to create media ourselves, and view content from all around the world, in a way which was unimaginable at the start of the millennium.
This has been very challenging to traditional media organisations, which previously funded news through a near-monopoly on attention and advertising, and are now in a losing battle for both. The winners are tech platforms which aggregate content from all around the world, and distribute advertising alongside it with few of the regulations which govern more conventional media in New Zealand. Alongside this, because the audiences deserting radio and television are much more likely to be young, Māori, pan-Asian and Pacific, there is a core unfairness to taxes funding media like RNZ, which largely serves older Pākehā audiences.
In response to this dilemma, the government has elected to take its current media properties, TVNZ and RNZ, and put them inside a brand new organisation called ANZPM. The thinking is that it will draw on the best skills of both organisations while creating something new designed for the digital age. The era we’re in now is one in which more and more consumption is happening on overseas tech platforms, which are much harder to make money from (they understandably want to keep it for themselves). Because of that, the government has committed $109m in extra funding to help ANZPM entertain and inform audiences which currently miss out.
What will happen to TVNZ and RNZ?
These reforms are very unpopular – just 22% were in favour in a recent Taxpayer’s Union/Curia poll – which is largely because TVNZ and RNZ are themselves very popular, particularly with older New Zealanders. The government has tried to explain that it’s not about breaking what’s working – that what is currently non-commercial (mainly RNZ) will remain that way, for example. But Jackson has also talked up the need for a more prominent role for content which reaches those audiences which currently get missed, which probably sounds a lot like change to people who don’t necessarily want anything to change.
Was there another way?
In some ways, it might have been easier to simply create a new entity – call it Digital NZ – to explicitly make content for the missing online audiences. That might have placated fans of TVNZ and RNZ, but would also implicitly condemn those organisations to a slow death, which would be quite unfair, given that they are outwardly trying, with varying degrees of success, to become something new while still performing their traditional roles. But while clunky, it would probably have been more politically palatable and caused less ruckus.
Another alternative would have been to ramp up the budget of NZ On Air, the funder of public media for all platforms, while telling it to aggressively go after those audiences it currently misses. Instead it has seen its budget slashed and transferred to ANZPM. This would have avoided the sense that the government is favouring its own media properties and leaving the private sector media to twist in the wind. While the likes of Jackson and Tracey Martin, the ex-NZ First MP leading ANZPM’s establishment board, have been at pains to say it should be a collaborative net positive to the private sector media, there is a lot of understandable suspicion, especially given TVNZ’s reputation as an extremely well-run commercial operator.
How does this link to legislation to force big tech platforms to bargain with news media?
During the 2010s, the vast majority of news media income came from traditional channels like newspaper and television advertising, even as audiences increasingly consumed their content online. Now that those advertising channels are in sharp decline, and with a recession coming, there is an international movement toward getting tech platforms to pay for the news they carry, whether that be video or text stories shared by users on Facebook or snippets carried by Google across its various products.
The tech companies have understandably resisted this, saying that they are in fact helping the news industry by distributing its work. Irrespective of where you stand on that argument, it’s undeniable that the rise of the tech platforms has corresponded with a shrinking of local news media, as advertisers move upstream toward the valuable targeted data the tech platforms hold. The tech platforms are unimaginably vast in terms of their scale and influence, limiting local news organisations ability to figure out what’s fair and where compensation should sit.
Lost amid the conflict between Jackson and Tame on Sunday was a major announcement – that the government will bring legislation to force the tech platforms to bargain with local news producers, mirroring Australia and Canada in trying to force a resolution. (For more on this, read Toby Manhire’s excellent story from Monday.) Because this will apply to all local producers of news, it allows for both public and private sector media to participate, and thus avoids the spectre of the government pumping hundreds of millions into its own media organisations and just shrugging at the fate of the private sector media.
If all this fails, what does the future look like?
Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr has acknowledged that he is attempting to engineer a recession to get price increases under control. When recessions come, the first thing to go is advertising, as companies mirror consumers in cutting what spending they can. Despite the growth of paywalls at NZME and membership models at The Spinoff and Stuff, advertising remains comfortably the largest revenue stream at all those organisations, along with all the TV and radio companies (the fully taxpayer-funded RNZ aside).
Without interventions like ANZPM and the tech bargaining code, it’s likely that 2023 will see a return to the rolling layoffs which characterised the 2010s in media. The spectre of a social media-first election covered by a fast-shrinking cohort of journalists is likely not thrilling to any party, and only the most hardcore media cynics think the solution for news media is for it to shrivel further.
Taking a longer view, if you believe in any kind of independent fourth estate, some kind of urgent reform is manifestly necessary. On some level all of this is already starting to turn again – video is eating the internet, with Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok hosting large quantities of context-free clips from news shows posted by users, while news organisations struggle to resource more new formats which seemingly require their presence while presenting very few revenue opportunities. Behind all this lurks fast-rising artificial intelligence, which digests the whole of the internet’s information and spits out natural language which is both compelling and often factually inaccurate.
All of which is to say that despite Jackson’s combustible interview on Sunday, just standing still equates to a dire outlook for news media. That’s why there was a rare unanimity in response to the government’s announcement of the tech bargaining code: the stakes are ultimately existential. These reforms can be critiqued, and should evolve in response to submissions from those with sector knowledge. But if you believe in the importance of news media, they cannot be allowed to fail.