The New Zealand media industry has found a surprising ally, with Winston Peters throwing his weight behind proposals to safeguard the sector – although not without a few trademark jabs at his ‘enemies’ in the fourth estate
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has thrown his party’s weight behind a revived bid for an NZME-Stuff media merger, saying the country’s fourth estate is essential to democracy but in dire straits.
Peters has also backed efforts to shore up the future of public media outlets RNZ and TVNZ – although he stopped short of backing a full merger into a new public broadcaster, as is believed to be under consideration by Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi and the Government.
Speaking to media at Parliament, with NZME executives watching in the audience, Peters said the “StuffMe 2” bid – based on a “Kiwishare” proposal giving the Government special rights over the combined businesses’ journalism – was “in the greater public and national interest” given the threat of job losses currently faced by both companies.
The Kiwishare proposal would require a set number of regional print titles to remain open and operating during an agreed period, and would not cost the Crown any money to join.
The NZME-Stuff subsidiary would still need to seek Commerce Commission approval for the deal, Peters said, adding he hoped the commission would look at it with fresh eyes.
“What you’ve really got to consider is, is it possible for these two entities to combine their resources and more efficiently deliver a product, than to go on as competitors or in opposition, in a cost structure where their actual costs are eating their very future away every day, and where scores of jobs are going to go in circumstances when they should not and when something should be done about it.”
New Zealand First also supported a strengthened public media sector, and welcomed Faafoi’s efforts to make changes in the area “to both protect and future-proof TVNZ and RNZ”.
However, while the overarching direction had been set, Peters said there were a number of questions related to design and cost that still needed to be addressed.
“So from my party’s perspective we will be looking to assess what future proposals emerge to ensuring it is what was intended when the process was started.
“After all, the objective is not to design new organisations but to find ways to protect and develop serious debate, and quality journalism.”
Speaking about the importance of the media in New Zealand, Peters quoted former prime minister Keith Holyoake as saying the dissemination of news media was something special and “more than a biscuit factory”.
“To quote him, ‘It is very much in our national interest that we have our own voice or voices to express our national identity and character’.”
The shift in advertising revenue from traditional outlets to Google and Facebook was suffocating the industry, Peters said, with money “bleeding out of our newspapers” and numerous community titles either closed or put on the market.
“You could take the attitude it’s ‘dog eat dog’ and the market will sort itself out, but on a matter so critical to our values, our sense of our democracy and our freedom, particularly in the provincial setting where it is the only literary lighthouse for so many populations, these are really serious issues and we’ve given them a lot of consideration and made up our mind we need to help, and we need to help now.”
He said there were negative trends developing in the country’s journalism, with younger reporters and a shallower depth of experience.
“To say you can walk off the street to become a press gallery reporter may be an exaggeration, but not much of one,” Peters said in a trademark snipe.
“Can we be confident our media will enhance reasoned democratic debate, or is a steady trend of celebrity, crime, and shark stories causing our population to disengage?
“Many of our news outlets give the same platform to a social media blogger, an activist self-titled as a journalist, a public relations consultant who provides political commentary, and those titled as political editors.”
However, he said there was a strong case to protect the media because of its role in shaping New Zealand’s society and national identity.
“A free, open and independent news media in New Zealand is an essential part of a healthy democracy.”
It appears Faafoi was left in the dark on the contents of Peters’ speech despite leading the Government’s media reform plans.
“I get on with Kris Faafoi real fine but we don’t share our diaries, no…if you accurately report it, it will be serious news to him, he’ll be delighted.”
However, a number of senior executives from NZME were in attendance after being briefed by New Zealand First that Peters intended to make a number of announcements regarding the media.
NZME chief executive Michael Boggs told reporters Peters’ backing was welcome news in the company’s efforts to protect journalists as a whole, and particularly in regional areas.
“I think this gives us a really great opportunity, I’m really pleased that New Zealand First has come to support what we think’s a great New Zealand solution to a global problem.”
Boggs said the Kiwishare proposal would require the merged companies to maintain two separate websites and competing newsrooms, with a number of performance metrics and requirements around journalist numbers.
While a two- or three-year review was “an important timeframe”, NZME saw the Kiwishare model as a long-term commitment with regular reviews to assess market conditions.
“This isn’t something that will go away after two or three years, unless market conditions have changed.”
Commerce Commission chairwoman Anna Rawlings told media after an unrelated select committee appearance that she had not yet seen Peters’ speech, but would assess any new application it received on its merits.
Rawlings said the commission stood by its decision to block the first merger proposal, noting it had been upheld after going through the courts.