Paul Smith: Of baked beans and public interest

Published: Wed 18 Apr 2007 11:25 AM
Of baked beans and public interest
NZ Media Comment By Paul Smith
The Print & Media Industry Council met recently and, among other things, condemned the decline in journalistic standards that has resulted from the over-commercialisation of New Zealand's media. It also went on to demand appropriate staffing levels, training and promotion of professional standards and ethics.
There's no doubt the angels are on its side. Here's Joseph Pulitzer writing a century ago: ' A cynical, mercenary, demoagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.' Well….?
But a question journalists have to ask themselves is to what degree were they responsible for the decline in the quality of journalism? Could they as stewards of the public interest have done more, sooner? Would they have had more clout if they had retained a strong collective voice through their union? It might have helped, but there were always more powerful forces at work - market economics, the shrinking of the public sphere, ownership changes, the New Right's demolition job on unions, and technology.
So when did the rot set in? Was it in1976 when PM Rob Muldoon froze the licence fee for the next nine years and gleefully watched the then Broadcasting Corporation became more and more commercial? Was it 1989 when Labour's de-regulation of broadcasting offered nothing more philosophical in its legislation other than the need to make a buck? Was it 1991 when, to the incredulity of the rest of the world, National allowed 100% foreign ownership of media? And with no cross media restrictions?
TVNZ chief executive Julian Mounter, a former journalist, was aghast at this sudden and autocratic move. He called it "…an error of judgment which could ultimately prove to be disastrous for broadcasting in this country… We are not talking baked beans or tin cans; we are talking heritage, national identity, and national culture."
My editors at Variety in Los Angeles found it equally hard to believe and satirised it with this:
'For sale: entire broadcasting industry of compact English speaking market. Established audience and ad revenue base. Excellent European /production/sales links. Highly competitive radio interests. Some renovation required. Interested? Call New Zealand'. They did. Major print and broadcasting outlets are now all owned by overseas interests. We have become another demographic, another revenue stream.
All of it added up to trouble for journalism because all these moves pushed media further and further towards becoming a creatures of a fragmented media market.
But luckily we paused for a cuppa and National's plans to sell TVNZ were scuppered by Labour. We still have Radio New Zealand, where unionisation is at its highest at over 50% ( By comparison private radio has zip) . And a heavily commercialised TVNZ which has once again shot itself in the foot - or is that the heart? - with its redundancies.
To a large extent the public has been misled by reporting on issues like this. They were never about celebrity news presenters. The issue is and always has been about good reporting and how to maintain it in an age Pulitzer foresaw only too clearly. We should fund and respect this trade, not kneecap it. But the commercialism which Muldoon, then the rest, ushered in has taken over. Marketing now advises newsrooms. Next it will be the mailroom.
The Media Industry Council's resolution is at least trying to raise debate on important issues. Its problem is that given the absence of a coherent collective journalistic voice and movement over the past 15 years, can it now realistically demand anything?
Paul Smith is a journalist, author and founder of the website,

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