Gavin Ellis: An open letter to the incoming media minister

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A challenge for the new Minister of Broadcasting and Media ... "The 12 Labours of Willie Jackson". Image: Te Ao Māori News

OPEN LETTER: By Gavin Ellis to the new Minister of Broadcasting and Media Willie Jackson

Dear Minister,

Congratulations on assuming the Broadcasting and Media role.

The announcement of your new portfolio put me in mind of Hercules as King Eurystheus told him there were a dozen small jobs he would like done.

Like Hercules, you will find that the tasks ahead are challenging. Some will seem insurmountable. Yet, the underlying message of that particular piece of Greek mythology is that nothing is impossible.

I would hesitate to suggest that success will lead to immortality, but you will certainly make an enduring name for yourself if you are able to ensure that New Zealand’s media ecosystem is fit for purpose.

In order for that to happen you must undertake, if I may be so bold, the Twelve Labours of Willie Jackson.

Here are the tasks you should address:

  1. The new public media entity — ensure it is an entirely new approach to a digital future and not merely a TVNZ/RNZ merger, and enshrine independent governance.
  2. Media content review – act as the coordinator for a project to determine how we should address harmful media content, which spans a multitude of issues and ministries.
  3. Social media platforms — make them pay for plundering our media and our audiences, and make them accountable for content.
  4. Public Interest Journalism Fund – restore public confidence in the fund (by removing requirements seen as linked to government policy) and continue to fund the scheme.
  5. Regulatory structures – facilitate the replacement of the Media Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority by a single, demonstrably independent, body.
  6. Private sector survival — investigate alternative mechanisms that replace declining revenue, and incentivise plurality.
  7. Māori media — Have a stern talk with yourself, as the Minister for Māori Development, to finally bring something concrete out of the Māori Media Sector Shift that has already been three years in the making.
  8. Ethnic media — recognise and support media that directly address often hard to reach communities.
  9. Media law — review statutes that were predicated on media structures and methodologies that have long been superseded.
  10. Media training — resurrect the Journalism Training Organisation with a mandate to devise curricula standards and assess their implementation by tertiary institutions.
  11. Policy balance – work to ensure that the legitimate Te Tiriti initiatives being pursued by the Labour Government do not inadvertently ignore the broader needs of the media sector and its audiences (plural).
  12. Technology watch — set up a monitoring group to alert government to technological changes (in areas such as artificial intelligence) that will affect media production, impact and oversight.

I realise that it is no more than 18 months to the next election and, even if you expect another term in government, you will need to prioritise.

Three broad rubrics
The tasks fall under three broad rubrics that are inter-related: Media sustainability, media governance, and social cohesion. Admittedly, they involve some activities that currently sit outside your portfolio but there is a crying need for a coordinator. That can, and should, be you.

The most pressing task is the New Public Media Entity, which both Television New Zealand and RNZ openly call “the merger”. You have inherited a project in the second of its three phases, and I am sure the easiest approach would be to leave it to take its (predetermined) course.

That would be both a lost opportunity and, I respectfully suggest, an abrogation of your responsibility to oversee the establishment of an organisation that is truly fit for purpose.

Your predecessor, Kris Faafoi, is admirably well-meaning and I have no doubt the initiative started under his watch had sound core purposes. However, he tended to lead from behind and the outcomes to date suggest the results will be less than the sum of their parts.

There is a golden opportunity to establish an entirely new organisation, born for a digital future that can accommodate but not be led by its legacy technologies and cultures. Its impact on the overall media landscape will be so significant that it must have a unique multi-tiered independent governance structure to insulate it from government control and to contain its own power.

I see neither of these imperatives in any of the material that has so far entered the public domain and I fear the introduction of draft legislation in the next week or two will confirm my misgivings on both fronts. My hope is that you will intervene to ensure the final form of the bill addresses both opportunities and threats, and your discussions with the Establishment Board gives it the courage to think a significant distance beyond the square.

The Content Review, led by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, also demands your attention. While extremely useful work has already been undertaken on harmful content in various forms of media, there is a real need for strong coordination with your portfolio. My fear is that mainstream media could suffer because, when it comes to policing content, they are low hanging fruit. The real danger with harmful content lies with digital platforms.

Absence of strong government direction
Those social media platforms also demand your attention in other ways. The absence of strong government direction (the antithesis of what is evident in Australia and the European Union) has allowed them to apply a cynical cherry-picking approach to compensating New Zealand media for the material they appropriate.

Unless they are forced to act responsibly, they will continue to serve only their own pecuniary interests and to minimise their responsibilities for content. You have an opportunity to align New Zealand internationally.

Your predecessor performed a real service to media and the public in setting up the Public Interest Journalism Fund. I have to declare an interest here: I have been involved in evaluating applications for PIJF on behalf of NZ on Air. That involvement has allowed me to witness at first hand the determination to pursue journalism that is squarely in the public interest and to see successful applications for projects that hold government — and other forms of power — to account.

Blackened the name
However, oppositions forces (both political and more malign) have blackened the name of the fund. It has been characterised as a bribe that has muted criticism of the Labour government.

It may be a hard ask, given that you represent the very people accused of doing the bribing, but you need to restore the fund’s reputation…and commit to its continuation.

You may feel those tasks will be more than sufficient to keep you occupied for the rest of the current term, but you cannot ignore the other Labours of Willie Jackson. I suggest you coalesce them into a single project: Futureproofing New Zealand Media. It could provide the blueprint for your next term as Minister of Communication and Media.

It may also embrace the idea of my long-advocated Bretton Woods #2 and bring together the many elements that make up our media and their audiences to map a collective future. That would make this old man very happy.

I wish you well with your new portfolio. You bring to the role many years of media experience. Complete these 12 labours and, like Hercules, you will be a hero.

Dr Gavin Ellis ONZM MA PhD

Dr Gavin Ellis holds a PhD in political studies. He is a media consultant and researcher. A former editor-in-chief of The New Zealand Herald, he has a background in journalism and communications — covering both editorial and management roles — that spans more than half a century. Dr Ellis publishes a website called Knightly Views where this commentary was first published and it is republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.

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