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.