• Media Responsibility

    New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) is New Zealand’s largest media group. They own the New Zealand Herald, the country’s most widely read daily newspaper, as well as the most widely listened to commercial radio network. In addition, they own a large number of provincial and local daily newspapers.

    Such a dominant position in the news and media world by just one company means that New Zealanders are in danger of seeing, reading and hearing only one view of what is happening in their country and in the world. It also, surely, imposes on NZME the responsibility of providing a balanced view of the country’s affairs.

    One part of that responsibility is the need to pay some attention to what their readers and listeners think and feel. A failure to reflect, or at least take account of, those views would, one would think, risk the loss of a proportion of the reading and listening public on whose support NZME relies for its profitability.

    I can testify from my own personal experience that there are at least some issues on which NZME editors listen very carefully to their customers. I was for a couple of years contracted by NZME to write a weekly column which was published in a number of their provincial newspapers; since I write from what some – perhaps many – readers might have seen as a decidedly liberal or leftist viewpoint, my column was, I thought, a useful antidote to what was otherwise pretty unremittingly rightwing fare in the papers and airwaves owned by NZME.

    I was writing my column throughout the recent American presidential election – a period that culminated in the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol. I am no fan of Donald Trump, and my criticisms of him provoked, it seems, a number of letters to the editor from Trump supporters in which I was accused of being unfair to the then President.

    I regarded these protests, given that it was difficult to avoid taking a partisan position on such a controversial issue, as par for the course. But NZME were not so relaxed and apparently took fright, professing to me that they were concerned that I was upsetting their readers; my contract was accordingly terminated. I regarded this as regrettable, but very much their prerogative, and it was in some way a relief not to have to think of a topic and submit a column every week.

    I am prompted to write about my experience, however, because, as a regular reader of the Herald, I cannot help but notice that the Herald publishes a number of columnists, both in-house and contracted from outside, whose constant stock-in-trade is hostility to our current government; indeed, so marked is this characteristic that it seems that some of them – Mike Hosking, for example – have nothing beyond that to offer. In the case of Hosking, who constantly compares our response to the pandemic unfavourably with Australia’s, I can only hope that he will make good his threat to move to Australia, just as the Aussies are now seen to have entered a recession as well as now facing a renewed outbreak of the virus. Hosking, and one or two others – Heather du Plessis-Allan, for example – get two bites at the cherry; they are both newspaper columnists for the Herald, and they both host news programmes on NZME-owned commercial radio stations.

    These regular contributors to the Herald are reinforced by occasional columns from washed-up rightwing politicians – such as Richard Prebble and Steven Joyce – with the result that the Herald cannot now be read without the reader suffering indigestion from the overt bias that accompanies so much of what it publishes. And that is to say nothing of their policy on what makes a story – in other words, their news selection – in accordance with which an anti-government story wilI usually get top billing. I know from conversations with friends and neighbours (some of whom, but not all, share my views on the wider issues) that they are increasingly fed up with the diet of overtly prejudiced comment they are offered and have given up reading the Herald.

    The continued publication of such material must, at the very least, run the risk of alienating not only current but also potential readers – and I cannot believe that the Herald’s financial position is so strong that it can afford to cast a proportion of its readers aside in this way. And, furthermore, a little consistency would not come amiss. If my comments on Donald Trump could not be tolerated, supposedly, by NZME readers and editors alike, why are NZME so relaxed about offending the susceptibilities of Herald readers on a wide range of other issues? Why would NZME assume that its readers are not a faithful representation of the population as a whole, a majority of whom voted for our current government?

    The conclusion to which I am forced is that NZME’s owners think that the financial risk is worth it for the sake of the daily attempt, all too recognisable in their pages, to show our government in a bad light – so that politics, in other words, trumps profits, as well as – certainly – balanced reporting. If that is the case, as it seems to be, and NZME’s owners are prepared to sacrifice readers and profits because of the value they place on peddling an overtly political message, then our democracy is at risk; the Commerce Commission, which has already declined to approve NZME’s merger with another major media group, on the ground that the range of political comment in our country would be dangerously narrowed by such a takeover, should perhaps take another look at whether our democracy and political system is being properly served by the current concentration of ownership of our media or by the overtly political message that NZME’s pages and airwaves represent.

    Nor is this the only issue concerning the state of our media – both privately and publicly owned, and broadcast as well as published – that warrants our attention, if their treatment of a recent issue is anything to go by. The recent and damaging cyber-attack on the Waikato District Health Board was a follow-up to similar attacks elsewhere around the world, and notably in Ireland. It caused untold misery, anxiety and risk to many vulnerable patients, and confusion and worry to health administrators. It seemed to be an instance of “ransom-ware”, whose purpose it was to extract money from the institutions affected; and, not content with threatening the lives of the sick, the perpetrators then threatened to publish private information about those whose records were held by the hospital authorities and to demand more money as the price for not doing so.

    It is hard to imagine a more reprehensible instance of pitiless greed or of the exploitation of hi-tech expertise by heartless criminals. Yet, sadly, it came as no surprise that someone could be found to demand immediately the resignation of Andrew Little, on the ground that he was responsible for the debacle because he is the Minister of Health and also the Minister responsible for the country’s security.

    There can be no more telling example of a growing current trend, of which we have virtually daily evidence – that whenever something – anything – goes wrong or someone is disappointed or displeased by some action or inaction (of whatever kind), and irrespective of what other factors might be involved, a complainant will emerge from the woodwork to point the finger at the government of the day. This kind of knee-jerk version of the blame game is of course meat and drink to the media; they are presented with a ready-made story that requires no further investigation, with the added bonus of extending what is already a newsworthy story with a kind of “David v. Goliath” element of the “little man” or “ordinary bloke” fighting back against authority – and there is the pleasing additional opportunity to grill the authority figure complained about. The mere fact that a complaint has been made is, it seems, enough to make the story.

    The syndrome is constantly repeated, however tenuous may be the causal connection between the matter of which complaint is made and the person at whom the finger is pointed. In the case of the cyber-attack on the Waikato DHB, the intervention of international criminals, utilising a specialist knowledge for nefarious purposes, might have been considered not only as the prime cause of the crisis but also as a factor that was by definition difficult to foresee and counter – as other countries have also found to their cost.

    The reaction seems to be endemic in a society that is increasingly inclined to look to government to solve (and forestall) all problems, wherever and however they might arise – and the media seem to enjoy any such opportunity to lay into “authority”. The surprising element, however, is that such reactions often come from – and the complaints are made by – those who seem to resist and resent, as a matter of principle, the involvement of government in their lives. The best interpretation of the syndrome may be, in other words, that it is those who are hostile to the very concept of government in general terms who will be the quickest to blame “the government” if they are displeased about something – anything – that could attract attention from the media – and they have learned that simply making an objection or complaint is a sure-fire way of securing an anti-government platform.

    It may be futile to suggest that the media, in such circumstances, should exercise their own judgment as to whether such a complaint bears scrutiny and deserves (in many cases, headline) publicity; but we would all agree, surely, that free and active media are an essential element in a properly functioning democracy and that their role therefore involves more than simply reporting and amplifying attempts from whatever quarter to treat government ministers as Aunt Sallies or fall guys.

    Those of us who have other causes to support – in the media or elsewhere – will be concerned that our efforts will be unnecessarily prejudiced if the media demonstrate that they see no need to exercise such judgment, and that “anything goes” and is grist to the mill. The impartial viewer or listener might find it difficult to separate the chaff from the grain.

    And, if the media are committed to representing the viewpoint of only one section of society, such as big business – as seems to be the case in respect of NZME – what are the chances of getting a proper debate about important issues like the increasing control by overseas interests of significant elements and assets of the New Zealand economy?

    A lively public debate is essential to a properly functioning democracy, and our media are – or should be – the means by which that debate is conducted. If the media let us down, by failing to do their job properly, we are all worse off. The Commerce Commission, please take note.

    Bryan Gould
    22 June 2021

1 Comment

  1. Ken Rossiter says: August 18, 2021 at 4:28 pmReply

    Another great article Brian.

    I pay $20 a month to read the Premium section of NZH.
    I only do this to be able to read the sports and business sections.
    I would not waste my time reading the Hosking rants as with Prebble.
    Other wise I would not pay the Herald one cent.

    A great pity that they saw fit to drop your contribution , that would have been some thing to balance their right wing views.

    Ken.