Wednesday, 30 October 2019

To Save Democracy, We Must Make The Media Our Own.

New Zealanders' Television: Obliterated almost completely from New Zealanders’ collective memory is the amazing collection of creative talent which was all-too-briefly assembled in the purpose-built Avalon television studios (above) situated ten miles north of the capital. If this period is recalled at all it is only for the purposes of laughing at the posh pronunciation and absurd hairstyles of the era’s ridiculously clunky (by contemporary standards) broadcasters.

WHO WILL RESCUE TV3? Almost certainly not the private sector. Not only is the commercial free-to-air broadcasting model broken, but TV3 remains burdened by its previous owners’ insatiable appetite for debt. These formidable liabilities have fatally undermined the network’s return to profitability. Even without the migration of advertising revenue to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and YouTube it would have continued to bleed money. Given these disadvantages, the probability of TV3 finding a private sector buyer is close to zero. Which leaves the obligation to rescue TV3 resting squarely with the New Zealand state – which is to say, with us.

Not that you’ll hear this, the most obvious long-term solution, articulated by many of those speculating on the fate of New Zealand’s most innovative and downright bolshie television network. “Nationalisation” is one of those words it is forbidden to utter in twenty-first century New Zealand without spitting on the ground. Public ownership is almost always rendered by media pundits as “government owned” or “state controlled” – as if Jacinda Ardern, in addition to being New Zealand’s prime minister, would instantly become TV3’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Accordingly, public ownership is branded unequivocally as a “bad thing” – the first stumble down the slippery slope that leads to Putin’s state-owned and government controlled propaganda network.

1970s Television: More Than Flared Jeans And Disco.

AS IS SO OFTEN the case in any discussion about who should own what in New Zealand, the historical ignorance of the younger generation stands athwart any progress towards non-neoliberal solutions. Fed horror stories about prime ministers vetting broadcast journalists’ questions and news bulletins crafted in the offices of the Tourist & Publicity Department, younger media players know nothing of the extraordinary creativity, vibrancy and independence of publicly-owned television in the late-1960s and 70s.

The latter decade, which coincided with the introduction of a second publicly-owned television channel, witnessed an extraordinary flowering of news and current affairs, documentary, drama and music programmes. For this very reason, the enemies of public ownership spare no effort in casting the 1970s as the decade that taste forgot – notable only for its flared jeans and disco. Obliterated almost completely from New Zealanders’ collective memory is the amazing collection of creative talent which was all-too-briefly assembled in the purpose-built Avalon television studios situated ten miles north of the capital. If this period is recalled at all it is only for the purposes of laughing at the posh pronunciation and absurd hairstyles of the era’s ridiculously clunky (by contemporary standards) broadcasters.

It is no accident that New Zealand’s golden era of television coincided with the changes initiated by the Norman Kirk-led Labour Government of 1972-1975. The freedom and independence that marked the broadcasting of the mid-1970s reiterated Kirk’s re-definition of New Zealand nationhood – especially his emphasis on steering a new and independent course diplomatically, economically and culturally.

The assertion of government ownership and state control, so often derided by the critics of public ownership, came not from the last democratic-socialist Labour Government, but from the Rob Muldoon-led National Government that ousted it. New Zealand the way Rob wanted it was all about hugging the fictions of the post-war era ever tighter to the ‘RSA Generation’s’ bosom. That the forces of creativity and innovation were injurious to the existing order of things was a prime-ministerial view of which public televisions’ bosses were left in not the slightest doubt. For Rob and his ‘Mob”, the proper focus of state television was the status-quo.

The Revolution That Wasn’t.

THE OVERTHROW OF MULDOONISM in 1984 brought a new status quo. To those broadcasters forced to endure the Big Chill of the late-1970s and early-1980s, the new order had a revolutionary feel – they even made a series about it. The reality, however, was that the new ‘Labour’ government’s ‘free-market’ broadcasting regime was way more insistent on ideological conformity than Muldoon’s government had ever dared to be. Richard Prebble’s Broadcasting Act of 1989 buried ‘public service broadcasting’ forever. A commercially-oriented, ratings-driven TVNZ was Rogernomics’ gift to the shattered remnants of what had once been New Zealand’s vibrant public media.

That’s why the long-awaited third television network was so warmly welcomed. TV3, by some unanticipated quirk of late-capitalist cultural logic displayed more creativity, innovation and independence than the ideologically straightjacketed TVNZ. For the past 30 years, the privately-owned TV3 network has, heroically and paradoxically, filled the vacuum created by the deliberate destruction of public service broadcasting in 1989.

Certainly, there was an attempt to re-inject public service ideals into the state broadcaster under the Clark-led Labour Government of 1999-2008. Unfortunately, the commercial ethos was so deeply entrenched in TVNZ that removing it would require, in the powerful metaphor of veteran broadcaster Ian Fraser “a neutron bomb” – i.e. something that would keep the infrastructure intact while wiping out all the people inside it. The TVNZ ‘Charter’ and its good intentions did not survive the 2008 change of government.

Enter Democracy’s Digital Gravediggers.

IN THE TEN YEARS since then both the global and the local media environment has been utterly transformed. Technological change and the radical cultural responses it has prompted have disrupted not only newspaper publishing and broadcasting, but also the democratic political system they did so much, historically, to construct. While the future of digital communication is assured, the same cannot be said for the gathering and dissemination of news. In the words of The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive:

“Journalism is different. It has been indirectly funded, through advertising, since its birth. Advertising no longer sustains it, nor will it ever again. The new advertising giants make no journalism, nor have any interest in doing so. We are facing a New Zealand in the not too distant future in which information becomes a tightly held and costly commodity (the new premium Herald is $200 a year, the NBR twice that), with access to it limited to those who have the facility to pay for it.”

Put more bluntly, the not-too-distant future will not be democratic.

That does not have to be the way things develop in New Zealand. Democracy and journalism, cultural creativity and innovation, can survive and thrive: but only if sufficient political will is summoned to the task of transitioning the newspaper and television industries out of their current configurations and into publicly managed structures dedicated to preserving the critical thinking and free speaking so essential to the practice and defence of democracy.

Freedom & Funding

OF COURSE the Duncan Greives of this world will object that taking current affairs journalism, and cultural production generally, under the wing of the state will produce exactly the same reduction in diversity that the “pompous relics” at the Commerce Commission deemed so injurious to the public good in relation to the proposed merger of NZME and Stuff. But is that really the only outcome? Is that what actually happened back in the days when television was principally funded from the public purse?

The answer is “No.” The producer-driven television of the 1970s generated programmes that were as quirky as they were challenging. Ranging from the still much-beloved Country Calendar, to the ground-breaking historical drama series, The Governor, the output of the two publicly-owned television channels was formidable. Editorial freedom, moderated by professional responsibility and a strong understanding of and connection with their viewers, empowered New Zealand’s television producers to turn out programmes of impressive quality and impact.

Broadcast live out of the Avalon studios, The Dean/Edwards Show – featuring Brian Edwards and another British import, Michael Dean – anticipated the big, live-audience shows of what came to be called “reality” television. Perhaps their most memorable programme was devoted to the power of advertising. With wicked inventiveness, the production team hired an advertising agency and the actor Ian Mune to “sell” the Cooks & Stewards Union (infamous for going on strike during the school holidays) which they did with extraordinary and highly revealing effectiveness.

All that is required to generate the most stunning television is editorial freedom and the funding necessary to make it real. It is precisely this magical combination that explains the runaway success of HBO and Netflix-commissioned shows.

Public Media, Not State Media.

THE BEST WAY to secure the full benefits of public media is to ensure that it is firmly embedded in the local community. Once again, young New Zealanders have no memory of the time when each of the four main centres boasted an extensive regional television service. Not only did these regional production centres screen their own local news and current affairs, but also produced shows for broadcast on the nationwide network. The award-winning children’s programme “Spot On”, for example, was produced in TV One’s Dunedin studios.

The social, political and cultural impact of the hundreds of staff employed by these regional production centres was considerable. A healthy dose of irreverence and anarchic joy was injected into the inward-looking provincial communities their presence so thoroughly disrupted. With the broader public acting as their patrons, they unleashed the energy of art and the power of critical thinking against conservative regional cliques grown accustomed to smothering both.

Such was the public – the social-democratic – media culture that Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and the whole neoliberal revolution swept away.

Rebuilding Trust In Public Ownership.

AH, YES, but as Kit Marlowe says in The Jew of Malta, “that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead”. For a while at least a resurrected system of public media ownership would need to be protected by some pretty sturdy walls of public accountability. The taxpayers would have to be assured that their new media system was, as Fox News boasts, “fair and balanced” and that bodies existed to make sure it was.

At both the regional and national level this could be achieved by appointing boards that were genuinely representative of the communities they served. Like the boards-of-directors of the long-gone Trustee Savings Banks, the governing bodies of these new media organisations could include nominees from the business community, the trade unions, educational institutions and communities of faith, along with representatives of management and staff. Such bodies would be there to protect not only the rights of the audience, but also the editorial freedom and independence of producers and journalists. These guardians would, themselves, be guarded by the provisions of statute law.

A Matter Of Political Will.

NONE OF THESE CHANGES will be forthcoming from the present government. Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi, has already made it clear that he and his Cabinet colleagues have not the slightest intention of riding to TV3’s rescue. On the left of New Zealand electoral politics in 2019 there is neither the political will, nor any real political understanding of the vital role played by the media in both preserving and fostering a democratic culture. Like practically all politicians, Labour, Green and NZ First MPs regard the media in general, and journalists in particular, as the enemy. Though most of them had more delicacy than to say so out loud, Winston Peters’ “Good riddance!” response to TV3’s imminent demise was, almost certainly, their own.

The truly radical insight of the Kirk Government was that a genuinely independent public broadcasting system, driven by a desire to serve the public good, and insulated from the tutelage of the advertisers’ almighty dollar, would always end up serving the interests of the citizens it empowered – and hence the interests of the political party most dedicated to their welfare. Only when those same citizens grasp the urgent democratic necessity of rescuing not just TV3 but the entire New Zealand news media, will they be in a position to infuse their parliamentary representatives with the political will to make it happen.

If you don’t like where your country is right now, you should perhaps reflect upon how vital it was for the people who brought you here to first corrupt and then break the media institutions whose democratic duty it was to warn New Zealanders about where they were being taken – and why.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 October 2019.


Pinger said...

I spent 5 years in Aussie and the ABC / SBS was great.

And spent 5 years in the UK and the BBC was great.

And returned to NZ to the mindless banal dross of NZ tv.

Tom Hunter said...

And returned to NZ to the mindless banal dross of NZ tv.

In my case it was NPR (National Public Radio) and their companion TV network, PBS, in the USA. And when I returned from the US I had the same reaction to the shallow, vapid crap that was OneNews and TV1 in general. Not that TV3 was much better. And this was twenty years ago.

Tom Hunter said...

The assertion of government ownership and state control, so often derided by the critics of public ownership, came not from the last democratic-socialist Labour Government, but from the Rob Muldoon-led National Government that ousted it.

Yes, which makes it astounding that you would miss the point made by small-government Righties like me. I'm opposed to such state institutions, especially in the media world, precisely because of the ever-present possibility of an authoritarian like Muldoon turning up sooner or later.

How is it that Lefties do not get this simple point? It was always on the cards and it will be again. There is simply no set of institutional rules that can prevent such a thing happening. The only way to prevent it is not to have the thing in the first place, whatever benefits you think you'll get.

There's also the matter of you talking about the "Golden Era" ushered in by - of course - that wonderful Kirk Labour government. You might want to read Brian Edwards first book, The Public Eye, where he memorably describes the NZBC as being:
"...less afraid of the Prime Minister than 'Mother of Ten' "
The latter of which formed the basis of much of Edwards conflict with the NZBC even as he rose to prominance as the best Current Affairs interviewer in the country.

Then there's this:
TV3, by some unanticipated quirk of late-capitalist cultural logic displayed more creativity, innovation and independence than the ideologically straightjacketed TVNZ. For the past 30 years, the privately-owned TV3 network has, heroically and paradoxically, filled the vacuum created by the deliberate destruction of public service broadcasting in 1989.

Again, you describe something accurately but whose import you refuse to acknowledge. By your own admission a Private Sector media outlet, owned by Big Business and Giant Corporates, was actually more progressive in the stories it pursued and other aspects, than the State-Owned media.

But your only analysis of this is that such a thing is an unanticipated quirk of late-capitalist cultural logic, and that it's a paradox. Well, yes, I'm sure to members of the Old Left, and the modern Left for that matter, it surely was unanticipated and a paradox. Apparently not enough to spur any deeper thoughts about what this means and where it might lead in future.

Sadly, all of this - and this article is brim-full with such pathos - is a distant past that cannot be recreated. Even if the government did step in to recreate the glory days of the NZBC, the kids would not be watching it. Hell, I haven't watched broadcast TV since 2005, and not OneNews or ThreeNews since before that, such is their shallowness.

But the kids are even more hardline. My kids - and every single other kid I know of - have not watched TV of any sort since they were little. It never even occurs to them to do so, let alone pick up a newspaper or even look at the internet versions of each. I had to shake my head sadly at the mournful looks on the faces of their high-school teachers in Year 10 Social Studies as they desperately assigned projects for the kids to watch TV or read a newspaper and report back. Talk about passive resistance and annoyance! It had no long-lasting effect either.

The past is another country Chris, and if it wasn't Douglas and company who killed it, it would have been the simple passage of time and the development of technology.

Over a decade ago I was telling Lefties that contrary to all the screaming in 1999/2000, the best thing we could have done was sell the particular set of "family silver" that was TVNZ. Back then when we could have got a billion dollars for it. I said in 2010 that it was worth much less and would soon reach the point where we would not able to give it away. And that was before the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime and the rest. What a waste of resources.

And now here we are.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I last watched TV news sometime in the 1980s, when they spent about five minutes on some sailor on a fishing boat who'd broken their leg. It wasn't that it was intrinsically important, obviously it wasn't – but the guy was flown to hospital on a helicopter, and TV NZ hired a helicopter to watch the other helicopter flying this guy to hospital. Now these days it probably wouldn't be a thing helicopter flights being so common, but that was five minutes of my life I wasn't getting back. And they did it simply for the dramatic effect.
Since then it's got even worse – Christ even national radio at times I remember someone telling me they listen to it a year or two ago in the first seven items were about crime. If it bleeds it leads should only apply to papers like the Daily Hate and tabloids like Truth – if that still exists.
The press make a big palaver about how the are the conscience of the nation and so on, but the private press exists to sell papers or clicks. That's all. So of course the news was better when it was government owned, as long as there is some form of protection against government pressure – we could all imagine what Muldoon would do if he could have.
I would even be reasonably happy with a compromise where TV one was made ad free giving TV3 the extra revenue. Because I've been hearing tales about stories being spiked for fear of offending large advertisers. Now that's something perhaps you freedom of speech people can get onto – haven't heard a great deal about that for many of you, but I imagine most of you would approve of large advertisers putting pressure on the media.
But the best option would be several nationalised stations. Free of fear and favour I must stress. That way we might get news worth watching, instead of the latest exploits of the Kardashians or Paris Hilton – I see the guardian has succumbed here – but THEY have to make money as well.
It might give the newspapers some competition as well. I gave mine up years ago because after 30 years of delivering to my front door they decided they couldn't be bothered anymore. The keep ringing me up and asking me to go back. Problem is, once you leave you realise you can do without them. Particularly in its latest tabloid form.

Left Thinking said...

Right on Chris!

Slinger said...

Time to bring back the household broadcasting fee? to ensure commercial free TV1?

Probably not entirely silly.

Shane McDowall said...

How about TV-1 and TV-2 go commercial free so TV-3 and Prime can share out the advertising revenue.

Hell, even one nation-wide commercial free TV channel would be better than multiple channels playing shit "reality" shows and three-year-old British, US and Australian quiz shows.

There is a massive number of great TV programmes dating back to about 1970 that could fill our screens 24/7.

I would rather watch Archie Bunker and I,Claudius than the Kardasians.

New Zealand needs a BBC type TV channel. If we do not tell our own stories, if we do not sing our songs - no one will.

BlisteringAttack said...

I had a friend over from the UK. And we just happened to have the TV1 news on one evening.

In astonishment, he exclaimed, 'why are these real estate agents reading the news?'

It's time TV1 and 2 went advert free and trained journalists were involved in the producing the news.

Like a NZ Al Jazeera or BBC.

Anonymous said...

It was always said the British quality papers were a joy to read, literate quality people, Oxbridge people from very narrow circles, often sons and daughters of prominent generals and left wing politicians sharing the same bed, bottle and reefer. The arguments were marvellous, personally I preferred the more vicious edge of the Guardian and New Musical, circa 1980.But it was all a relentless left wing, equalist view, compensated for me by the beauties as and the relentless heterosexuality of the view. But Thatcher and Reagan did more to actually get affordable quality and service on the better halfs main street of their nation, partly at the cost of delaying infrastructure replacement..In the USA it became just about the coasts, Chicago and a few varsity towns. In Britain it was about miles, time and hours from London. Bluntly about 225 miles and.2.25hrs.Scotland became just subsidised politician and bureaucrats and RAF bases and the strategic oil and naval bases. Really CNN, TV3 and the old TVNZ were good and fair because they didn't. Know much about many areas and what the knowlegable left or right would auto censor. Also the thing about the Simon Walker Muldoon interview is both knew two things , what was the truth, and secondly what the NZ public thought was the truth and would believe, something radically more limited than complex 6D truth. With Collins, Bridges and Arden they operate in a truth, fact free world where they grasp nothing about real facts and truth.and both politician and public subsist in a truth free totally malleable world of stardust and cancer cure