Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson is in a storm of the government’s own making. (Photo: Getty Images; Design: Toby Morris)
Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson is in a storm of the government’s own making. (Photo: Getty Images; Design: Toby Morris)

MediaDecember 13, 2022

Willie Jackson on that Q+A interview – and what his media reforms are really about

Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson is in a storm of the government’s own making. (Photo: Getty Images; Design: Toby Morris)
Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson is in a storm of the government’s own making. (Photo: Getty Images; Design: Toby Morris)

Five days on from one of the year’s most talked about interviews, broadcasting minister Willie Jackson called Duncan Greive to talk about his tech reforms, and why he was misunderstood.

Broadcasting minister Willie Jackson came away from his interview with Jack Tame last week thinking it had gone well. They got into it about the government’s plans to merge TVNZ with RNZ, and he admits it got heated. Even after it aired a few days later, he didn’t change his mind – he says he has a good relationship with Tame, and to Jackson this was just a robust kōrero.

It was only when NZ Herald deputy political editor Thomas Coughlan (or “some guy from the Herald”, according to Jackson) recapped what he described as a “bizarre and worrying” encounter that Jackson became aware that something might have gone awry. Over the coming days the interview became one of the major political talking points of the week, largely due to the perception that Jackson had gone too far in his critiques of Tame’s style, and his conflation of TVNZ’s commercial policy with the host’s personal views. It eventually led to prime minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to her minister about it, and Jackson apologising not long after.

Later, during a series of end-of-year interviews, Ardern started to talk about “prioritising” or “paring back” those parts of her government’s legislative programme which are “not the most important”. It was unavoidable that the merger of RNZ and TVNZ, an unpopular but relatively minor piece of work for Labour, would be on any shortlist for abandonment. She refused to guarantee its passage on Morning Report yesterday either, and quite suddenly the merger seemed shaky. While it has had a bumpy ride, it never felt in major danger. So a single fateful interview now has the potential to derail legislation which has been in the works for three years.

Willie Jackson gets into it on Q+A, December 4 2022

Lost in all the noise was another policy, the one Jackson had gone on Q+A to discuss in the first place. It was the announcement that New Zealand would join Australia and Canada in drafting legislation to force big tech platforms like Google and Meta to strike deals to pay local news organisations for content they host or distribute. It’s a bold move, one which was greeted with simultaneous press releases from the big news organisations, united in their approval. It’s no stretch to say its passage could have a huge impact on the future scale and sustainability of New Zealand journalism.

Yet because the back half of the interview became so controversial, the announcement was missed by many. So I asked Jackson if he wanted a do-over – a chance to explain what it is the government is up to with the tech bargaining legislation. He also addressed the Q+A interview, and talked about the merger in strikingly equivocal terms – the first time he has expressed anything but full confidence in it going ahead.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

Duncan Greive: How are you doing? That Q+A interview blew up in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily have anticipated.

Willie Jackson: Well, no. I don’t think Jack anticipated it either. Because I get on well with Jack, and he thought it was a great interview. We all thought it was good. Except some guy from the Herald didn’t like it. I suppose that’s how it works. I know a little bit about interviews, and I know what bad interviews are. I mean, you’re talking to the person who did the roastbusters interview. So I know what a bad interview is. That one there seemed like a good interview, both ways. We thought it was entertaining, good value, but obviously the bloke from the Herald didn’t like it.

I think in the controversy around the interview, we sort of lost that big announcement that you made in the first half about the tech bargaining. 

Even though it went a bit wrong, the good thing is we did get a couple of really good stories on TVNZ and on Newshub, right? People have talked about this deal, which I’m very pleased about. And that’s really what I want to talk about. Because as broadcasting minister, it’s not just about the merger. This initiative is something I’ve been working on for the last three months.

Yes, the merger is important. But this is equally important. This is about looking after everyday media people. This is about looking after people who don’t have the capability to negotiate with the big boys, about ensuring the viability and sustainability of the entire media sector. Local news has for too long now just been taken. So we will have to legislate to require these big online digital companies, such as Google and Meta, to pay a fair price to New Zealand media companies for the local news content that they host and share on their platforms. It costs to produce the news, and it’s only fair they pay.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

We’re in a situation where Adrian Orr has been very candid about actively engineering a recession. And during a recession, the first discretionary item that goes in business is advertising, which is still the news media’s main source of income. So I’m wanting to pin you down on a timeline. When do you think it’s plausible that legislation would come into action? 

We want to get it out before the election. I’m still expecting us to win, but you want to put in legislation that any government would feel an obligation to run through, because this should not even be about politics. It should be about equity and justice for the little guy, for the journalists who haven’t had a fair crack. So this will be a priority for us before the election. But of course, like in Australia, we’re encouraging people to do deals. And the legislation, remember, is designed as a backstop to encourage companies to reach agreement without us getting involved.  

Will you name the tech companies it applies to, as they did in Australia, or will you allow for it to be a function of scale, so that as new platforms appear and use news that they naturally become within the scope of it?

The legislation will ensure that platforms that use New Zealand content enter into fair and reasonable commercial negotiations. All news media companies are covered, and it’s designed to account for future changes in the market. On the other side, online platforms can request an exemption if they believe they’ve made enough deals. Eventually the BSA will take into account the history, the precedent, the reality of deals, all that sort of thing. They’ll be the regulator. But we don’t want to be too specific.

The Australian Treasury just released a report that said its bargaining code has been a rare piece of legislation with essentially no trade-offs. Google and Facebook still offer their full range of services in Australia, as they do all over the world, but it’s put hundreds of millions of dollars into the local news media. Do reports like that give you confidence that this is the right path?

Oh, absolutely. We’ve been encouraged very much by what’s happened in Australia and Canada. So that’s why I’ll be pushing through the legislation.

One of the things that you said on Q+A was that you would like to legislate that the money must go into journalism, versus spending on technology, for example. Do you still hold that view, or are you comfortable with the idea that basically, news organisations know best how to deploy revenue from the deals?

I accept that’s the case. We can’t direct them how to spend the money. We could always stipulate in the legislation that there are some expectations. But you can’t be too prescriptive. You know, my heart’s with the journos. But I understand there are other costs.

Facebook has publicly announced that it is moving away from news. Rather than cutting it off the way it briefly did in Australia, it’s just slowly turning news down. Does that concern you?  

Of course – it’s one of the driving reasons for the merger, the level of misinformation is incredible. The reality is, we have to future-proof the industry. If they choose to move away from news, we’re confident other companies will show news media content on their sites.

Do you still think that Facebook should have to pay even if it stops showing any news? Or does that change the calculus?

We can’t just legislate around Google and Meta. As I said, Google and Meta are two of the biggest players today, but that might not always be the case, so the legislation should account for future changes.

This situation – a bargaining imbalance, and a hole where local culture should be on globalised and borderless platforms – it exists for news, but it also exists within other forms of content too. Those who work in the local production sector argue for similar legislation impacting YouTube, Netflix or Disney+. Do you think there is a case for that?

What you’ve talked about has been traversed, we’ve talked about different ways of doing things with other problems. The line that I have got from my officials is this can’t be about a levy. What I’m saying is, that isn’t possible now – we’re concentrating on this legislation. But I think that’s part of the discussion going forward, without a doubt.

The prime minister has spoken about certain parts of your legislative programme needing to be pared back. Do you feel like the RNZ-TVNZ merger is mission-critical stuff that absolutely has to get done, or is it something which might be paused?

At this stage, there’s no move at all in terms of the merger. We’re about to appoint the board. We’re probably one to two weeks away. We’re hoping to appoint the board before Christmas. So I haven’t seen anything to say that the merger will be put on hold. But as the prime minister says, you’ve got to look at every single thing. So whilst I totally support our merger, it’s one part of the whole broadcasting portfolio. What we’ve been talking about today is equally important. Everything is scrutinised. And we’ll be looking at that over that January-February period.

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