David Seymour in a suit reading a newspaper against a background split into two sections. The left section is red with what appears to be a stormy texture, while the right section is blue with a similar stormy texture.
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsJune 6, 2024

He hates the media, and loves it too. Will the real David Seymour please stand up?

David Seymour in a suit reading a newspaper against a background split into two sections. The left section is red with what appears to be a stormy texture, while the right section is blue with a similar stormy texture.
Image: Tina Tiller

One leads a party that cheers for the downfall of the news media. The other is among the most thoughtful defenders of the press in politics. Duncan Greive asks the Act leader (and current acting PM) what he really thinks about journalism.

Outwardly, there is no one in politics with a dimmer view of New Zealand’s news media than Act leader David Seymour. This is partly philosophical – Act is free market-oriented, and the media (largely film and TV) receives hundreds of millions in rebates and grants each year. But it can often feel like there is a deeper misgiving.

Just this week, Seymour posted a provocation on Facebook. “Here’s my challenge to the media: if you want to regain the trust of New Zealanders, stop applying a double standard to the Māori Party, and start calling out their behaviour like you would for any other political party.”

The Act leader has been an alternately surgical and blunt media critic for years. The Spinoff reported in 2021 that Seymour had elected to boycott state-funded RNZ’s flagship Morning Report, saying “I went on their show out of a feeling of public duty and was belittled and abused” – a position he still holds to this day, despite his elevated position in government. He saw overreach within the now-closed Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF), decrying its insistence on a position on Te Tiriti that he says is at odds with the view of a majority of New Zealanders.

Earlier this year, the day after news broke that TVNZ proposed cutting over 60 journalism jobs, Seymour singled out 1News political reporter Benedict Collins and said the media showed a “delightful lack of self-awareness and immaturity” in coverage of job losses within its sector. “They have spent years celebrating and dancing at every slip that a politician makes, competing to get scalps as they call them… but oh when we have a bad day ‘you’ve got to be kind to us’.” 

He also oversees an Act Party communication apparatus that is even more aggressive. In the aftermath of further bad news from AUT’s media trust survey, Act’s social media team used the loss of trust in news media as a hook to advertise its newsletter. Called “Free Press”, it regularly asks hard and unsympathetic questions of New Zealand media. For example, when news broke that Newshub was to be shut down, it noted that many journalists “demand accountability but it’s always for thee, never for me. All the while trust has plummeted and the media is in trouble everywhere”. 

In April an edition of Free Press, released after the Stuff deal with Three, assessed the globalised media market, and asked “if people are happily getting what they want, and it’s not New Zealand channels anymore, what’s the problem? Right now, YouTube and Netflix dwarf the rest of the New Zealand media. TVNZ doesn’t stand a chance.” It seemed to shrug at the very idea of a shared national culture.

Hate it – or love it

There is another side to Seymour, though: a media hyper-consumer who can recall specific story hierarchies from months ago, who starts each day with the NZ Herald app and Newstalk ZB, but reads widely across the political coverage of all major publications, along with the likes of Newsroom, Politik and The Spinoff. 

I wanted to know who the real David Seymour was, so arranged to interview him in late April. Setting it up took a day and a couple of texts. We spoke for 40 minutes, only ending when he had to bike to Act’s Newmarket office. The following day, he made another 30 minutes available. This is the leader of the fourth-biggest party in parliament; the soon-to-be deputy PM, opening up an hour to discuss an area outside of his portfolios with no notice. It suggests a level of intense interest in journalism, at the very least.

I started by asking him whether he bought the theory that the news media had changed for the worse in recent years, and if so, what he believed was driving that. “I think a big part of the issue is just the volume that journalists are required to produce,” he said. “Because the model is so driven by the amount of content and the amount of clicks, versus the level of depth. 

“I don’t have any data on this, but I also suspect that there’s a lot less senior journalists involved in media than there might have been a few decades ago. I can think of people who were former journalists now making multiples of a journalist’s salary working in public relations, who, if they were still reporting, I think we’d have quite a different news landscape – but there’s just no way that they’re going to take a 75% pay cut to do it.” 

Image: Tina Tiller

The Free Press on a free press

Seymour is correct in pointing to the fact that jobs in communications, many of them within the public service, are far better compensated than journalism – an underrated part of the hollowing out of mid-level and senior journalism roles. Still, it’s startling to compare the sophistication of that analysis with the language in Act’s Free Press in April, which implied a level of indifference about the existence of any New Zealand media at all. 

“As traditional companies collapse, the call is for government to help somehow,” the unbylined newsletter reads. “But what can history tell us? The best thing government has done so far is get out of the way.” It’s of a piece with Act’s free market ethos, but also somewhat nihilistic. “If New Zealanders don’t want to watch films and documentaries about New Zealand, or care much about watching media, should anyone care?”

I asked Seymour about that sentiment, and he took care to distance himself from authorship of that piece. It’s somewhat surprising, given that his perceived authority over the current Act Party would trail only that of Peters’ over NZ First. “The question that article finished with – ‘what is the purpose of the quarter billion a year of taxpayers’ money spent on arts, media and culture?’ – is an important one,” he said.

Does a state require some content that is widely viewed or listened to or read in order that there’s a common narrative, as a country? I think the answer is likely that it does.” 

That represents perhaps the most important justification for journalism in the age of algorithms. For a democracy to function, its leaders need to be tested by a news media with a commitment to agreed facts. Both politics and business – two spheres about which Seymour cares deeply – are essentially unimaginable without some form of professionalised and standardised news media.

It’s also true that Seymour is arguing for the value of news media over other forms of media. That despite heavy state involvement at both ownership and funding level, he doesn’t believe “the quarter billion or so that’s currently spent on media is achieving that [common narrative]”.

Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

The devilish difficulty of funding news

How to fund it without overly influencing it? He offered a somewhat arcane proposal for a voucher system, whereby New Zealanders would be able to spend a version of a broadcasting fee with media of their choosing. “You could just say, ‘I’ve got 60 tokens and I want to give 30 to the radio I listen to in the morning and 20 to the newspaper I read and 10 to the TV station I watch’. That might be a more democratic way.” 

He conceded this would be administratively burdensome and unlikely to become law. The Act Party does have a history of lateral thinking in this area, though. Act stalwart Richard Prebble, then minister of broadcasting in the fourth Labour government, once told me he dreamed up our globally unique decentralised public broadcaster, NZ On Air, on a holiday in Fiji. It has proven surprisingly durable and fit for changing mediums.

It’s clear that Seymour’s more substantive target is the tax rebates that currently power the screen sector. These are rounding into view again, with last month’s announcement of yet more Tolkien adaptations coming from Sir Peter Jackson, as well as the screen sector’s expressed desire for a levy to supplement rebates and the funding agencies.

Yet while there is a legitimate debate over the efficacy and targeting of screen sector subsidies, the question of how to support journalism remains vexed. The end of Newshub and Sunday, part of hundreds of journalistic job losses this year alone, has already seen off one media minister less than six months after the coalition government was formed. 

NZ First has expressed support for the news bargaining bill, currently at select committee, which would press big tech to pay for journalism running on its platforms. National is ambivalent, seemingly persuadable. This makes the views of Seymour crucial to the bill’s progress – or that of any other proposed solution to the journalism crisis. I asked him whether he believed there existed a way for the state to fund journalism that wouldn’t leave it open to the bias charges he and Peters have presented in recent months.

“It’s inevitable that if the government of the day, which is inherently a political creation, starts taking taxpayer money and giving it to media, then it’s always going to be hard to persuade people that the media is not somehow influenced by that,” Seymour said. “It may be that you just can’t get good media by state funding, which leads back to that question of, well, what are we doing with the quarter billion?”

Is it really so hard?

There are any number of examples of what many would argue are “good media” that are partly state-funded. Culture from Whale Rider to The Crusader to After the Party. Within journalism there’s a gamut, from RNZ to the Pacific Media Network to Whakaata Māori to Q+A, The Hui and The Nation.

It’s not uncomplicated, and some on the right would suggest that those shows or platforms can display a political leaning. But everything from the social media accounts of journalists to the level of constant partisan scrutiny has made news a more complex area to operate in than in prior eras. 

This all ladders back to trust. Do politicians believe that journalists strive to be neutral arbiters of information? Or do they believe some individuals and institutions have been captured by a particular worldview? This is where AUT’s annual Trust in News survey comes into view. This research, now in its fifth year, suggests a steady decline in trust among all major news organisations. Yet rather than expressing concern, Act used the survey to recruit subscribers to its newsletter.

A tweet from the Act Party account the day the trust in media survey was released

“I can’t think of a time when a whole industry has had a decline in trust of that magnitude. It’s big news, but of course, it was not widely reported,” said Seymour. That is just entirely untrue and easily disproved. It’s a core responsibility of news media – to factcheck the statements of elected officials.

Every major media organisation reported on AUT’s research, even though it was ultimately against their collective interests. I personally have methodological issues with the survey – to me, trust in news media only matters for the audience of specific organisations. The Spinoff is likely untrusted by ZB listeners; The Spinoff’s audience is unlikely to trust ZB. It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether audiences have a news brand that they trust, not whether they trust brands they seldom consume. 

An incomplete collection of headlines about the media trust survey (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Likewise, trust in all institutions – the police, corporations, even politicians – has been in structural decline since the rise of the internet, the smartphone and social media. That said, he’s right that the decline in trust of New Zealand’s media has been sharp. I asked Seymour what he believed prompted that.

“I suspect [trust declined] because the government of the day was effectively given a free pass through Covid. Journalists and media bosses I’ve talked to said that they were either afraid to challenge the government or felt that they had a duty to report the government’s messages. I think people can quite rightly say that the media completely failed them through the Covid period. And that’s been reflected in a monumental drop in trust.”

Does he have a point?

As with much of what Seymour says, along with the hyperbole (“completely failed”!), there are elements of uncomfortable truth. The length of some lockdowns, how hard the mandates were, the pace of procurement of vaccines and the scale of school closures are all areas in which government policy could have been challenged more robustly. But it’s not the whole story – the reporting of Michael Morrah and Kristin Hall, to name but two examples, regularly probed embarrassing failures with MIQ, and the group Grounded Kiwis was a persistent feature within media.

Additionally, with what happened to Simon Bridges after what hindsight reveals as a mild and defensible critique of government policy, you saw just how intense the depth of feeling was at times. News media has to be aware of its audiences’ taste for coverage. Particularly when for weeks, media had zero advertising revenue – to the point where an enormous business like Stuff could be sold for $1. I agree with that,” Seymour conceded. “But where was RNZ then? If there’s value in the model, then the one with secure funding should have carried on.”

It was a civilised conversation. We were making and conceding points, the way people typically do when talking to one another on the phone – and are much less likely to do on social media platforms. In some ways that alone might explain a lot of the difference between this contemplative David Seymour and the Act leader online who can be far more withering in his criticism.

I asked if he believed it important that society has a robust and free news media, beyond social media, and a media that’s not eternally caving in economically? “Of course. In just about every town hall meeting I’ve done in the last three or four years – and I’ve done hundreds – the question comes up: ‘what are you going to do about the media?’ And my answer is always ‘well, nothing, because we actually believe in a free press in a free society’. So it would be strange if we’re going to ‘do something about them’.” 

If he believes in an orderly society that has a common set of facts, is it OK that for the most powerful companies in the world – Google and Meta – there is no consequence for carrying false information? “I think the real issue is that all of us are dealing in an epistemological environment of postmodernism, where there’s no agreed reference frame.

“The underlying belief is that the world is constructed according to people’s subjective views. And any opinion is as good as any other. All of this discussion is happening on that foundation, which is pretty shaky. That, I suspect, is the real problem, but it’s something that’s been coming out of universities since at least Foucault.”

While invoking Foucault might seem like a copout, I don’t believe he was being entirely glib. There is something the way academic critiques of everything from foreign policy to history have moved out from campuses into a broader social media discourse. These have been hugely amplified due to the fact that every human with a smartphone can set up what is functionally a media company within minutes.

Much of this is just generational. It’s understandable that those who find such academic arguments compelling will seek to correct perceived imbalances in coverage around events like colonisation and issues like gender identity. It’s also understandable that those who grew up with a particular perspective on freedom of speech or the function of prisons might find it disconcerting to see those being challenged in parts of the news media.

That is what lies beneath a lot of mistrust in media and politicians – a sometimes heated discourse around issues about which there was previously a greater degree of consensus, often reinforced by media coverage.

The way out

Towards the end of our call, I asked Seymour whether he believed the current situation was a death-spiral, or simply an unstable period. 

“I’m very optimistic. I mean, the models will evolve. The marketplace is screaming out for it. It’s probably going to require totally different people from those that are currently reporting. But there will arise a new style of journalism, and the monetisation problems will also be solved. We’ll be just fine. I mean, we’ve had a free press, a reliable press, for the last 100 years or so. And it’s worked really well with democracies, which have flourished all around the world over that time. 

“We’re just going through a disruption where I guess the supply lines of media are being cut so that the pay packets and the number of journalists, as Madeleine’s story said, has declined. There’s still massive demand, and where there’s demand, there will always be entrepreneurship, which will solve the problem.”

It was a happy place to end a conversation that had largely and unavoidably dwelled on the financial and societal challenges to journalism. Finally, I asked if, should this new journalistic utopia rise, politicians like himself would stop attacking the news media – surely part of the trust problem for both sides. He paused, then said “forgive me one last rant” and went into an extended critique of a Newshub story from the leadup to the last election.

The news media and politicians aren’t meant to be best of friends, but the animus feels intense. Once our discussion moves from the theoretical to the practical it quickly grinds to a halt. The calm and reflective David Seymour that loves the media is replaced by the one that hates it again. And we’re back where we started.

Keep going!