BOB McCHESNEY is one of those progressive American scholars who repay the closest attention. Interviewed this morning on Radio New Zealand – National, he confidently laid out a series of radical measures that he believes will halt, and hopefully reverse, the precipitate slide in the quality of news gathering and reporting in the US and across the globe.
This is a – and quite possibly the – critical issue confronting the Left in developed western countries. But sadly, in New Zealand left-wing circles, media policy tends to be treated as an afterthought, at best, and at worst, a joke.
Now, I’m not suggesting there are no New Zealanders researching news media issues from a progressive perspective, because there are. Scholars like Peter Thompson, Wayne Hope and Martin Hirst are making an outstanding contribution. The problem is, we hardly ever get to hear from them.
Certainly, they’re much too hot for the ever-cautious Chris Laidlaw to handle. His idea of putting two cutting-edge commentators on the air is to rope-in the venerable Jim Tucker from the Whitireia School of Journalism, and Julie Starr, whose main claim to fame seems to be designing a website for Britain’s deeply conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.
Now I’ve heard enough from Jim Tucker over the years to know that his heart is fundamentally in the right place. In a more open and secure political and economic environment, when people in his position weren’t required to choose their words quite so carefully, I'm pretty sure that he would be a strong supporter of McChesney’s plans to socialise the news media.
Starr, however, is a very different kettle of fish. Having visited her website, and read her little posting on "The Future of Journalism", I have no confidence whatsoever that she even understands the problems McChesney is attempting to address. News is not about something as easy and comfortable and non-threatening as "information" – it’s about giving people access to that most dangerous of all commodities – the truth.
What chance is there that Labour and the Greens will latch-on to McChesney’s ideas? Are they up to the job of formulating a media policy for the 2011 election radical enough to transform our understanding of "press freedom" in the 21st Century? Honestly, I’d have to say the chances are pretty slim. I have yet to hear anyone, from either party, speak out in favour of doing something as basic as lifting the level of state subsidy for TVNZ to match even the OECD average – let alone the levels of support given to public broadcasting in Denmark and Finland.
So, if Labour's spokesperson on media policy, Brendan Burns, were to come out with a suite of reforms based on McChesney’s ideas: free postage for publications with less than 25 percent advertising; a $200 tax write-off for a subscription to a not-for-profit newspaper; massive increases in the level of state support for public broadcasting - I'd be delighted. Unfortunately, I get no sense that the Goff-led Labour Party is ready to sanction such radical changes.
If that is the case, then Labour’s new entrants (especially the brave souls who have just launched the blog Red Alert) should think about these questions:
How are they going to communicate with the tens of thousands of voters who either abstained, or voted against them, in 2008?
What do they think will be left of our public broadcasting service after Jonathan Coleman and his friends at the Sky Network have had their wicked way with the future structure of New Zealand's electronic media?
What hope do they have that a newspaper like The NZ Herald is going to give the Labour Opposition a fair suck of the sav’ when it comes to framing "key" election issues in two years time?
Do Labour – or the Greens – possess the strength of numbers, the economic resources, or even the creative imagination and political courage, to make a successful end-run around the hegemonic edifice of the major media conglomerates?
I think not.
And yet, without that imagination and that courage Labour’s chances of holding National to a single term seem very bleak. And if John Key gets a second mandate – one which includes privatisation, radical deregulation, and dangerously regressive tax reforms – then, by the time 2014 rolls around, it will be too late for Labour - the future of the Left will have become the responsibility of a more authentic group of electoral custodians.
So, here’s a suggestion for all you Labour Party policy mavens. Why not invite Bob McChesney to address the Labour Party conference? Why not get his ideas talked about by voters as serious possibilities. Why not serve notice on Sky, and its dark master, Rupert Murdoch, that any investments they were thinking of making in the New Zealand media industry may turn out to be not quite as secure as they’ve been led to believe?
Labour, if it’s to have the slightest chance of rebuilding its electoral fortunes, has got to get the electorate thinking about new things in a new way. Revolutionising media ownership in this country is just one of the many radical steps the party should be contemplating.
My greatest fear, however, is that without the ideological space afforded by a vibrant, publicly owned, and truly independent news media, getting to those next steps may be impossible.