An extract from a piece by Graham Adams on the DemocracyProject.nz website. Read the full article here
On Saturday, a column in the NZ Herald by businessman Bruce Cotterill claimed the majority of the media was too soft on the government (although he made an exception — albeit a lukewarm one — for the Herald itself).
However, he suggested it was time for news organisations to consider refunding some or all of the “Covid-induced $55 million media support package” after record levels of government-funded advertising — “particularly around Covid-19 and the controversial Three Waters proposals” — had goosed their profits.
Cotterill, a former CEO of ACP Magazines, pulled no punches: “If there is any risk that the media is skewing their representation of the performance of government, then we are indeed on shaky ground. In fact I suggest that there is nothing quite as dangerous in any democracy as a media that is beholden to the government.”
Extraordinarily, the column was followed by a statement titled “Proudly independent”, and signed by no fewer than eight senior Herald editors declaring their editorial independence was exercised “without fear or favour”.
National will also be hoping that the Prime Minister will be obliged at some point to deny that her munificent handouts exert any influence on editorial coverage — which would flush the question right out into the open.
In fact, she has already done that twice in Parliament but the public unfortunately wouldn’t have any idea about that because — surprise! — it wasn’t reported in the mainstream media, despite the significance of the topic to a democracy.
And it wasn’t as if the exchange in July was low-key or colourless. In fact, it was one of the more memorable exchanges in the House.
Judith Collins asked the Prime Minister: “What does she say to people who are concerned that her $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund — which includes numerous criteria for media to adhere to — is influencing the editorial decisions of media outlets in New Zealand?”
Grant Robertson burst out laughing, while Ardern declaimed emphatically, “I would abso-loot-ely reject that!”. Then, grinning broadly and stifling a laugh, she added: “I would put the question to the media and ask whether they agree with that sentiment.”
It was an absurd response given the media is hardly going to be an impartial witness in its own case when it has been accused of having been effectively bought by $55 million of government money.
However, Ardern didn’t realise she was in trouble until David Seymour asked a more specific question: “What then would happen to a media outlet that received money under the fund and wanted to report a story deemed inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is one of the requirements to adhere to?”
Ardern’s smile vanished. She replied: “I absolutely reject the idea that there is political influence in broadcasting and media!”
She sat down quickly to Opposition cries of “Answer the question!” — which she manifestly hadn’t.
Yet, somehow, the Press Gallery didn’t see this dramatic exchange about a fundamental aspect of democracy as worth reporting — which again raises the question of media impartiality.
Seymour was entirely on the money, of course, about the media fund’s requirements being very specific about how the Treaty is discussed.
The section describing its goals recommends “actively promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner“. And the first of the general eligibility criteria requires all applicants to show a “commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to Māori as a Te Tiriti partner”.
To those who are deeply suspicious of these criteria being included, the fact that journalists rarely (if ever) mention the impending Three Water reforms handing 50 per cent control of the nation’s water to iwi is compelling evidence it is deliberately avoiding their most contentious aspect. Viewing the Treaty as a partnership is, of course, the basis for such a revolutionary policy.