Perceptions over NZ’s public interest journalism project – saint or sinner?

NZ public interest journalism
Media companies big and small, local and national, public and private alike can all apply to the fund - including those which have never had public money before. Image: RNZ Mediawatch

SPECIAL REPORT: By Sri Krishnamurthi for Asia-Pacific Report

“Public interest journalism plays a crucial role in promoting the quality of public life, protecting individuals from misconduct on the part of government and the private sector, and giving real content to the public’s ‘right to know’.” – The Crucial Role of Public Interest Journalism in Australia and the Economic Forces Affecting It, by Henry Ergas, Jonathan Pincus and Sabine Schnittger, 2017.

No sooner had New Zealand’s $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) been announced back in February than the howls of prejudice from the privileged few bubbled to the surface.

The notion that the PIJF was a political construct as the fund is overseen by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and administered by NZ On Air, whose board members are appointed by the Minister for Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi, found favour in the apprehension of the displeased.

Accusations of media bias in favour of the incumbent government, instilling Article 2 of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi as well as the perception that Māori were being given preferential treatment in the PIJF have since been debated long and hard.

Goal 3: The PIJF says: “Actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner.”

Among those who questioned the media’s impartiality in the wake of the PIJF goals was opposition National Party leader Judith Collins.

“You have to wonder, does that buy compliance or what? And if it doesn’t buy compliance then why is part of that, that says that you’ve got to be seen to be promoting the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, what the hell has this got to do with it,” Collins said with incredulity in an interview played on RNZ’s Mediawatch.

“You are talking about free media, free speech and you’ve got a government going around telling people we’ll help you out in the media because we think its good for you to have a media but you have to say what we think, I don’t buy it and I don’t think media should be buying it, obviously some have completely drunk the kool-aid.”

Then there was Dr Muriel Newman of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research who on Sky News Australia said:

“We’re in a situation where the government has spent $55 million on a public interest broadcasting fund. [This] is something the media can apply for to get grants and one of the conditions of doing that is they have to, if you like, speak out in favour of this Treaty partnership agenda.”

A grain of truth?
Is there a grain of truth to some of the critique and to the accusations of the media selling out its independence?

Former editor of The Dominion Karl du Fresne seems to think so as he has said in his blog:

“The line that once separated journalism from activism is being erased, and it’s happening with the eager cooperation of the mainstream journalism organisations that are lining up to take the state’s tainted money. We are witnessing the slow death of neutral, independent and credible journalism.

“Last month, The Dominion Post published a letter from me in which I challenged an article by Stuff editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson headlined, ‘Why government money won’t corrupt our journalism’, in which Crewdson insisted Stuff’s editorial integrity wouldn’t be compromised by accepting government funding.

“I wrote: “ … what he doesn’t mention is that before applying for money from the fund, media organisations must commit to a set of requirements that include, among other things, actively promoting the Māori language and ‘the principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi’.

“In other words, media organisations that seek money from the fund are signing up to a politicised project whose rules are fundamentally incompatible with free and independent journalism.

“The PIJF should be seen not as evidence of a principled, altruistic commitment to the survival of journalism, which is how it’s been framed, but as an opportunistic and cynical play by a left-wing government — financed by the taxpayer to the tune of $55 million — for control over the news media at a time when the industry is floundering and vulnerable.”

‘Politicised project’
As Melissa Lee, National’s broadcast spokesperson, who is a former Asia Down Under broadcaster, said in the House during question time on August 4:

“Any news outlet that seeks money from the fund is signing up to a politicised project whose rules are fundamentally incompatible with free and independent journalism.”

Melissa Lee questions the Minister for Broadcasting and Media on August 4. Video: NZ Parliament on Vimeo.

Media consultant and former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Dr Gavin Ellis, who was one of a group of independent assessors who made initial assessments and had his Knightly Views column come under scrutiny from former North and South, Newsroom and Spinoff journalist Graham Adams, who wrote on the Democracy Project that:

“Some of journalism’s grandees have derided critics of the fund who object to its Treaty directions as ‘embittered snipers’ and as members of the ‘army of the disaffected’.

Dr Gavin Ellis
Media analyst Dr Gavin Ellis … dismisses critical colleagues as ‘siding with conspiracy theorists who are convinced the nation’s mainstream media are in the government’s pocket’. Image: Knightly Views

“In a column titled ‘Trashing journalists is not in the public interest’, Gavin Ellis, a former editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald, dismissed critical colleagues as ‘siding with conspiracy theorists who are convinced the nation’s mainstream media are in the government’s pocket’.

“He also passed off criticisms of ‘the emphasis on the Treaty of Waitangi in the criteria’ with: ‘There is no doubt that part of the funding will redress imbalances in that area and some of the already-announced grants aim to do that.’

“Given the fund’s criteria, redressing ‘imbalances’ can only mean amplifying the prescribed notion of the Treaty as a partnership — and certainly not questioning whether that interpretation is logically or constitutionally defensible.”

‘Sheer nonsense’
However, Dr Ellis wouldn’t have a bar of the insinuation that the media had sold out.

“The suggestion the media have been bought off is sheer nonsense,” Dr Ellis says.

“Look at it rationally: This is a modest amount of money spread over a number of years and across all eligible media organisations.

“If they were capable of being bought off – and I contend they are NOT – this would hardly be a winning formula for achieving it. Frankly, I think every working journalist in this country would be insulted by this suggestion.”

Faafoi was adamant that the fund remained independent of political interference.

“I am confident that any decision made around funding support announced recently is completely and utterly clear of any ministerial involvement, and quite rightly is undertaken by New Zealand on Air,” Faafoi said.

To the widespread view pushed by those suspicious of the PIJF that it would impact on media freedom and create bias, Selwyn Manning, publisher of Evening Report, says nothing could be further from the truth.

‘Simply silly’ argument
“The argument that the PIJF is an instrument of a Labour-led government is simply silly. It beggars belief that some right-wing elements from within mainstream media are harping on that the PIJF will impact on media freedom,” Manning says.

“Now, I don’t know the politics of this former executive producer, but if the Labour-led cabinet was truly controlling NZ on Air operations, I doubt it would appoint Mike Hosking’s former gatekeeper into the key role of overseeing who and what gets a slice of the millions being dished out of the PIJF.”

The suggestion that the media had been ‘bought’ by the government earned a rebuke from Manning.

Multimedia's Selwyn Manning
Multimedia’s Selwyn Manning … “The PIJF is designed to serve the public interest — not entrap an independent Fourth Estate.” Image: Evening Report

“The claim is absolute tripe. The same people who make the accusation are the very ones who have benefited from decades of corporate employment,” he says.

“Their former employers failed to develop new-century business models, and, many who believed they had a job for life, found themselves having to share the experience of the unemployed.

‘Smug mainstream complacency’
“Once cast into the wild, their lack of logic follows their years of smug mainstream complacency. The PIJF is designed to serve the public interest — not entrap an independent Fourth Estate. I’m not surprised that these practitioners of self-interest fail to understand the difference.”

Meanwhile, MP Melissa Lee has been conducting her own review into the media.

“Having met with dozens of broadcasting, media and content creators and industry leaders around New Zealand it is clear there needs to be a fundamental shift in the understanding of the future of media,” Lee says.

“Not just in funding, but in regulation and creativity in New Zealand; in other parts of the world global content creation platforms are innovating and embracing local markets and this needs to be considered within the framework as to how we fund these directly from the Crown and taxpayer.

MP Melissa Lee
MP and former broadcaster Melissa Lee … “outside of directly non-commercial content there is a serious question as to some of the things we are seeing NZ on Air and other public-funded platforms supporting.” Image: FB

“If there are commercial markets open to adapting Kiwi Stories that may have not had the same level of marketability before. We should be championing and discussing better partnerships on shore with all international and domestic content creators.

“When I set out on my own review, it showed me the industry, not the government and actually, not the taxpayer either, should be front-footing the future of their sector.

“Simply put, outside of directly non-commercial content there is a serious question as to some of the things we are seeing NZ on Air and other public-funded platforms supporting.”

Google and Facebook issue
As hinted by Minister Faafoi, the government may follow Australia’s lead, in seeking advertising revenue from Google and Facebook which was legislated for last year.

“Media is changing, the way people are consuming media is changing. We do think we need to assist some of the changing business models in the media at the moment,” he said in a recent podcast with Spinoff’s ‘The Fold’.

“At the time it was happening I said we wouldn’t take a similar approach and we haven’t.

“They have got an outcome and we have had discussions at the start of the year.

“If those (further) discussions happen it might go some way to replacing some of the revenue; we have put the PIJF to assist in the transition so we are keeping a very close eye on those discussions.

“We’ve sent the message to both Google and Facebook, after the round of talks (with local media). I would like to see more momentum there having said that officials are giving us advice on what other options are available to us.”

For once, Lee was in agreement with Faafoi as to the time limitation on the fund. Nor would she suggest a revenue gathering model for the industry to adopt.

‘Excessive level of funding’
“The government considers the PIJF to be a short term measure so I’m hoping it won’t be there when National returns to the Treasury benches. I wouldn’t support the model and the excessive level of funding that has been given in its current format and heavy conversations need to actually be had with the people of New Zealand as to what they want in the future of publicly funded journalism,” she said.

Dr Ellis considers that some form of assistance will need to go to the industry after its three-year duration.

“I sense that there will need to be ongoing support for initiatives like the Local Democracy Reporting (LDR) and the court reporting scheme, among others. However, we should not forget that among the grants are a number of (mainly TV and radio) programmes that have already been receiving long-term support from NZ on Air that have been moved into the PIJF.”

He pointed to the Reporters Without Borders Media Freedom Index in Nordic countries where the PIJF has been trialled successfully for 40 years.

“Look at the Freedom Index. New Zealand sits alongside those Nordic countries in terms of government attitudes to non-interference in media,” Dr Ellis says.

“There is a fundamental difference between trying to persuade — and all governments do that — and the type of coercion that ‘buying off the media’ suggests. There are legislative and constitutional safeguards against it.”

Māori and iwi journalism
One of the areas that has caused much consternation is under “Māori and iwi journalism in the general criteria is the section which says: “This spectrum of reporting is integral to the protection of te ao Māori under article 2 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and includes (but is not limited to) focus areas such as:
Te reo Māori and tikanga
● Political matters
● Historical accounts
● Profile-based reporting
● Tangihanga
● Māori interest
● Sports (Ki O Rahi, Waka Ama, Touch Nationals etc.)
● Civil Emergencies “

Yet under the what PIJF is NOT section, is the offending topic “National Political coverage”.

Although it has tried to justify this by comparing mainstream journalism with Māori journalism that is culturally specific.

That has been troubling for Manning, who saw it as a deficiency of the PIJF.

“A failure of this year’s PIJF remit was to exclude from consideration foreign affairs reporting and political reporting efforts,” he says.

‘Two vital elements’
“To me, that decision stripped two vital elements of public interest journalism from securing access to sustainable funding.

“It follows that communities, ethnicities that make up Aotearoa’s diverse multicultural experience, see politics and Pacific-wide affairs as essential components of their make-up.

“It is in the public interest that their experience and intellectual interaction with politics, and the world, be encouraged, supported and funded. But this was excluded from even being considered.

“That decision simply amplifies a Eurocentric bias. It was eyebrow-raising, to say the least, that New Zealand on Air stated to applicants that politics and foreign affairs reportage was excluded as it was already satisfactorily covered.”

It was a foible that drew the attention of Lee who said the fund draws over the cracks when it came to pluralism.

“I was deeply troubled and concerned at NZ on Air deciding to allow some forms of political journalism funding but not others and have yet to see a clear rationale for this from them or a clear answer from the Minister if he believes such funding plans were in scope for his policy proposals,” she says.

“While more ethnic media may get a temporary uplift through the fund, the reality is an effort to ensure diversity in reporters should be industry-led and not something that needs to be prescribed.

PIJF payout 2021
The Public Interest Journalism Fund payout in rounds one and two. Graphic: NZ On Air

‘Other ethnicities excluded’
“One of the more discriminatory elements of the way the PIJF has been established is to pre-suppose Māori political reporting should be allowed but other ethnicities is excluded because for some reason the government believes Māori culture is innately political but other political reporting based on different ethnicities is barred; that is simply not right.”

Manning has another view on why Māori media matters specifically to New Zealand.

“Let’s seek some solutions. Ideally, the PIJF effort should be split into two camps; the first where Māori media develop an expression of public interest journalism that serves the needs of the Māori community; the second where all others express the development of public interest journalism through a multicultural frame.

“If that was embarked upon, then the challenge of measuring reach and diversity would be resolved through meritocracy and need, as opposed to racial through Eurocentric considerations,” Manning said.

He pulls no punches when he casts a caustic eye on media saying they are as much to blame for young talent not emerging from their own ranks as the Crawford Report in the Fund’s Stakeholder consultations and recommendations noted: “There was a consensus that the pipeline of talent into NZ journalism is broken. Newsrooms cannot find experienced journalists to fill vacancies and many in the industry believe the tertiary sector is not supplying sufficiently skilled graduates.”

As Manning explains: “If I may, I’ll speak to the degrees of blame emitting from mainstream media outlets. I’ll try to explain… The fact is the business models of many mainstream media are beyond their golden years.

“They cannot sustain the viability of their effort for much longer. They operate within a competitive paradigm where the value of an investigation is calculated by how popular it is; how it affects the time-on-site analytics; and how it may devalue an opponent’s brand (clickbait).

Reasons for journalism
“Public interest doesn’t come into it, that is unless it serves these elements. Nor does holding the powerful to account.

“Or creating an understanding that promotes common ground or positive change. A Fourth Estate endeavour couldn’t be farthest from their managers’ minds.

“Compare this to the reasons why young professionals study journalism and choose it as their preferred career path.

“I’d suggest 90 percent of those graduating with tertiary degrees majoring in journalism have made the commitment due to a desire to make a difference; to hold the powerful to account; to serve the public interest, and are dedicated to the ethics and ideals of a real Fourth Estate.

“The two cultures: the old corporate conservative dinosaur and the young idealistic professional, simply do not mix well. I fail to see any common ground between them.

“The consequence is a well-healed blame-game where the former media elites complain about the quality of entry-level journalists, and the rarity of the experienced.

“The reality is they want underpaid journalists, of all levels, that will serve them rather than public interest ideals”

Fourth Estate recognition heartening
Manning, in his final thoughts on the PIJF, said:

“If New Zealand on Air is sincere in its resolve (i.e. to learn from the PIJF early rounds) then a solid sustainable funding framework will emerge. From a media point of view, it is heartening that our democracy’s executive government has recognised how important is to have a sustainable Fourth Estate.

“It is disappointing in equal measure that the PIJF effort’s biggest critics come from mainstream media backgrounds.

“I suggest this reveals a pathetic state of intellectual decay that sadly is rife among those who once were journalists but are now yesterday’s news.”

That is the nature of the still-evolving media industry.

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