Monday, 12 December 2011

Sky Is Not The Limit: Restoring Public Media

Searching For A New Signal: The restoration of genuine public broadcasting - and the reinvigoration of New Zealand democracy - could begin with the nationalisation of the Sky Television Network.

WHILE THE LAW COMMISSION’s latest Issues Paper has raised a number of important questions about how best to regulate the content of the news media, there is much less interest in discussing news media ownership. The political class, in particular, tends to run a mile from such discussions. The extraordinary domination of the New Zealand media market by just a handful of overseas-owned media conglomerates is one of those things that polite politicians simply do not discuss.

The implications of foreign media ownership for the quality of New Zealand democracy are, however, substantial. The maximisation of profit, unconstrained by even a residual sense of national responsibility, can only lead to the relentless downgrading of journalistic standards and the elevation of entertainment over news values. Intellectually taxing and culturally challenging media products are increasingly relegated to niche markets and the steady dumbing-down of the mass media’s bill-of-fare continues apace.

The question which politicians of the Left should be asking themselves is a simple one: ‘Do dumbed-down consumers make better, or worse, democratic decisions than well-informed citizens?’ And if they concede that an ignorant population is incompatible with an effective democracy, then what do they propose to do about foreign control of the New Zealand news media? In particular, what do they propose to do about the growing domination of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky Television Network?

Shortly before the General Election a senior media entrepreneur told me that within two years Sky would find itself in exactly the same position as the old, state-owned NZBC: exerting something perilously close to monopoly control over New Zealand broadcasting. With a friendly government willing to look the other way, Sky may soon be in a position to either drive out or absorb what remains of its on-screen competition. This country’s extensive cross-media ownership could also see Sky acquiring most of New Zealand’s radio audiences as a sort of broadcasting by-catch. Complaints about anti-competitive behaviour would be answered by pointing to the existence of the isolated, under-staffed and politically beleaguered state-owned broadcasting system.

A foreign-owned, privately controlled broadcasting network occupying a near-monopoly position within the New Zealand media market should be anathema to Labour, Green, NZ First and Mana politicians. Together, these parties of the Centre Left should take serious thought as to how the growing power of the Sky Television Network might be constrained, and public broadcasting restored to its former status as the prime guarantor of a well-informed and actively engaged democratic citizenry.

In my view, the most successful re-nationalisation strategy would involve a two-pronged regulatory thrust at the core of Sky’s profitability. The first thrust would involve passing a law limiting the amount of foreign share-holding in any New Zealand television network to ten percent. This would require a massive sell-off of foreign-owned shares – sharply depressing their value. Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand could then be furnished with sufficient funds to acquire these shares on the public’s behalf. At the same time legislation would be introduced to Parliament requiring all existing networks to re-apply for a broadcasting licence. These would only be issued if the owners undertook to offer their viewers and listeners a comprehensive news and current-affairs service, and were ready to commission a generous quantity of local drama, documentary, children’s and ethnically-oriented programmes. The high cost of these licencing requirements would further depress the value of Sky’s shares, greatly facilitating their purchase by the state-owned broadcasters.

It would, of course, still be in the interests of the main content providers to sell their product to the new state-owned Pay-TV network. It’s monopsonistic (look it up!) position in the New Zealand market would, however, allow it to purchase that content at a significantly lower price. The subscription-price would be reduced accordingly (but not set so low that the public-service requirements of the State Broadcasters’ free-to-air programming could not be assured of a generous subsidy).

The Right will, naturally, protest loudly at such a policy. Dire warnings will be issued about the “sovietisation” of the New Zealand media, and the grave threats this policy would pose to our democratic way of life. They are, of course, the same people who cheered when the National Government of Jim Bolger legislated away the rights of hundreds of thousands of New Zealand workers with the Employment Contracts Act. And they will no doubt cheer again when, over the objections of nearly three-quarters of the population, our state-owned energy companies are “partially” privatised. They are also the people who have remained suspiciously silent as the democracy they so loudly claim to prize has been consistently undermined and weakened by the dumbed-down programming of the market-driven news media.

In his book The Economics of Feasible Socialism, Alexander Nove wrote of nationalisation:

The original notion was that nationalization would achieve three objectives. One was to dispossess the big capitalists. The second was to divert the profits from private appropriation to the public purse. Thirdly, the nationalized sector would serve the public good rather than try to make private profits ...To these objectives some (but not all) would add some sort of workers’ control, the accountability of management to employees.

Having seen what the “big capitalists” have done, and are continuing to do, to our world, policies directed towards refilling the “public purse”, upholding the “public good”, and increasing the “accountability of management”, recommend themselves as not only well worth a second look – but a second go.

And rest assured, Sky is not the limit. 

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Anonymous said...

One thing puzzles me about this argument, and that is how you are going to get people to watch this content when they not only have access to lots of TV channels, but can access internet stations right through their televisions (those who don't have this now will have it in five years). They'll just find something else to watch, and nobody can really stop them.

Hardly anyone wants to watch news, let alone serious news. That's why our news has been dumbed down. It doesn't have anything to do with private ownership. Why would regulation have any effect?

Yes, New Zealanders quite like watching local drama. Unfortunately, the local drama they seem to like involves perpetually fornicating yuppies.

It's the audience that is the problem, not the broadcasters, just as it's the voters who are the problem, and not the politicians.

The fact that nobody can bear to admit this does not stop it from being true. I don't like it either, but the standard of public taste has always been appalling, and all that has changed is that technology has made it easier for those tastes to be satisfied.

Anonymous said...

We need to consider this also:
"Brady said China had two propaganda machines, one directed at those in China and another focused on Chinese living overseas. Chinese in New Zealand were affected by this, as Chinese language media in New Zealand relied heavily on free content from Chinese media. "These papers are important, especially to new migrants to New Zealand," she said. "It's importing the propaganda line to Chinese-language discourse in New Zealand." "

Gerrit said...

There is no guarantee that by forcing the sale of shares in Sky to NZL citizens, that they would fall into state ownership (nationalisation).

When offered on the NZX they might equally as well be snapped up by Mum and Pop privately.

Or they might just "gift" them to subscribers at a low cost.

It is the same mistake you made when promoting union membership compulsion.

No guarantee that workers would join exisitng Labour affiliated unions. They could easily start their own non-aligned unions.

As Sky was never a state asset, it will not be re-nationalised. Just nationalised.

Not sure if doing that send the right vibes to local investers to start tradeable sector private enterprise entities.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@1:15

To say that "hardly anyone" watches the news is ridiculous. The Six O'Clock bulletin anchors the whole of prime-time viewing. That is the real reason bulletins are being dumbed-down - to offer viewers homogenised, non-threatening pap (except for shock-horror crime stories) and thus prevent them from switching to another channel.

The democratic objective is to ensure the broadcast of news that competes on the basis of journalistic quality and impact, rather than on who can hire the prettiest news-presenters.

It's hard to describe the taste of fillet mignon to those who have only ever eaten Big Macs.

But just let them try it and ...

To: Gerrit

It's a share "market", Gerrit. The shares would be sold to the highest bidder, and I'm pretty confident that, with the backing of the Treasury, the state-owned broadcasters will easily outbid Mom and Pop.

And if they were "gifted' to subscribers, why, the state would simply purchase them from the subscribers - and probably at a much lower price.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you claim: "To say that "hardly anyone" watches the news is ridiculous."

Really? On average less than a quarter of the population watch the major New Zealand newscasts, the combined audience for which is less than a million people. That means that roughly three out of four New Zealanders aged above 5 years old do not watch the major prime time television newscasts. When you account for the fact that most of the active viewers will be older, and children will often watch the news because their parents have it on, that leaves a large chunk of younger adults who don't watch. I know that this is true, since I've taught in media studies and the percentage of students who consume any form of news media is very very low – and these are people who we would expect to have a greater than average interest in news media. There are an awful lot of people out there who simply do not care, and they are the majority.

Similarly, if you had visited a New Zealand book shop or library any time in the last 30 years you might think that New Zealand was a fairly literate country. But again, the majority of Kiwi homes are bookless, perhaps save for some children's books or the odd gardening tome. I remember discovering this when I worked for a couple of years delivering furniture. It took me ages to realise that almost all the homes I visited had no books.

"It's hard to describe the taste of fillet mignon to those who have only ever eaten Big Macs. But just let them try it and .."

It's not going to happen. I despair at how many otherwise intelligent people believe something like this. Vast sums of money have been spent on trying to get children to be lifelong readers and to get people to appreciate the various forms of art music. Yet the standard of popular taste continues to be pretty woeful (just watch X Factor, if you can bear it), and even elite tastes now appear to centre on (albeit more refined versions of) pop culture. Why should we expect any greater success in inculcating a desire to be informed about serious matters?

Democratic theory has always been predicated on the idea that public education could make people good democratic citizens. We now know that it can't unless we radically restrict choices. It's sad, but there you go.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@2:15

Please, remove the mask. This is good stuff and it would be even better if you put your name to it.

I would only add that if the only way to improve the quality is by limiting the choice, then, for God's sake, LET'S LIMIT THE CHOICE!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

They do say people who watch Fox news know less than people who watch no news at all. Saw it on the net somewhere.

Frank said...

"The question which politicians of the Left should be asking themselves is a simple one: ‘Do dumbed-down consumers make better, or worse, democratic decisions than well-informed citizens?’ "

Worse, of course - much, much worse.

Dumbed down consumers make pliant, low-information voters. That is the audience that right wing political machines create simplistic messages for that are oft-repeated until they are accepted as "truths". (Eg; the previious Labour government made a mess of the economy - which ignore the surpluses that Cullen made, on the one hand, and then berates Labour fotr not giving us bigger tasx cuts on the other.)

Mike Lofgren made pretty much the same points in "Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult" (

Chris and "Anonymous" (December 13, 2011 2:15 PM) - I suspect you're both on the same wavelength, but due to limitations of written discussion, it takes a while to arrive at the conclusion which I suspect you'd both be closer than apart.

Interesting about the 6pm News (TV1 and 3) - it is, of course mostly rubbish. TVNZ's 8pm News is better, because of it's lengthier interviews rather than 5 second soundbites.

For better insights, the excellent Beatson Review" on Stratos fills a huge gapand even Bomber Bradbury's "War on News" and "Citizen A" gives better insights.

As matters currently stand, the 6pm News is proof that television news can be 'Macdonaldised'.

The result is a dumbed-down, low-information voter who votes for a cheery, smiling & waving candidates even those he espouses policies which supposedly 60% of us despise.

I keep wondering what our grandparents would feel if that could use a Tardis-like time-viewer to look into the future of 2011AD, and see where NZ society has arrived.

To suggest they would be horrified would be an understatement.

Frank said...

Damn, I didn't proofread my previous post properly...

Anonymous said...

You want to break Sky's monopoly?

Force major sporting events to be broadcast free to air.