No Free Society Without A Free And Functioning News Media: If we are to surrender our civil rights to the broader cause of defeating Covid-19, then foreign corporations must, likewise, surrender their right to inflict immense economic and cultural harm on New Zealanders simply because it improves their bottom line.
I’M NOT SURE, after today, if we’re going to come through this global pandemic in one piece. I just don’t think this government contains enough decisive individuals to guarantee that what emerges on the other side of this crisis will still be recognisably “us”. Where, for example, was the outrage; the cold fury; the swift and ruthless response to the reckless cultural vandalism of the German media conglomerate, Bauer’s, decision to destroy the New Zealand magazine industry?
This government has voted itself almost unlimited emergency powers to protect the people of New Zealand from the worst effects of the Covid-19 virus. That mandate must go beyond simply looking after their physical well-being. If it is to mean anything at all, it must extend to emotional and cultural well-being also. If we are to surrender our civil rights to the broader cause of defeating the virus, then foreign corporations must, likewise, surrender their right to inflict immense economic and cultural harm on New Zealanders simply because it improves their bottom line.
Where were the Prime Minister, the Minister of Heritage and Culture, the Finance Minister, and the Attorney-General when we needed them? Where was the cease and desist instruction to Bauer? Where was the threat of instant nationalisation if it failed to heed the Government’s clear directive? Where was the reassurance to all of Bauer’s New Zealand employees that this nation’s most venerable and beloved periodicals would not be permitted to simply blip-off the nation’s radar screen like so many downed airliners?
The answer, of course, is that none of these responses were in evidence. It impresses me not one whit that Kris Faafoi released a media statement clearly signalling his displeasure at Bauer’s decision. It might have made him feel better, but it did nothing to preserve The Listener, North & South, Metro, and the NZ Woman’s Weekly – or the jobs of the journalists, artists, designers and administrators involved in their publication.
New Zealanders are now entitled to know why the need for a functioning national airline (however shrunken) was accepted by this government, but the need for a functioning media industry (without which no democracy can long survive) was not. If close to a billion dollars could be diverted more-or-less instantly to the preservation of Air New Zealand, then why wasn’t $100 million made available to purchase – at the very least – the mastheads and the archives of Bauer’s New Zealand operation?
The preservation of these iconic magazines’ archives is especially vital. The NZ Woman’s Weekly’s first issue came out in 1932, the New Zealand Listener’s in 1939. The files and back issues of these two, and all the other magazines in Bauer’s possession, contain a priceless and irreplaceable record of this country’s cultural, social and political history. To let a boardroom of foreigners living on the other side of the planet consign these taonga to the skip would be a crime.
A truly New Zealand Government would have grasped these issues immediately and moved decisively to stop Bauer in its tracks. But then, a truly New Zealand Government would never have acquiesced in the almost complete deregulation of their country’s news media in the first place. It may have been a National Party cabinet minister, Maurice Williamson, who oversaw this process in the early 1990s, but in the nine years that the Labour Party was in control of the country’s fortunes not the slightest effort was made to re-regulate the media industry.
Had they done so, New Zealand would never have ended up in the situation where a roomful of German businesspersons could, in one fell stroke, eliminate a swathe of its most iconic publications. Nor would it be in a position where the fate of its second television network rested in the talons of a bunch of vulture capitalists. Or, where the future of all its daily newspapers south of Auckland and north of Dunedin depended on the whim of a cabal of Aussie media moguls who really couldn’t give a rat’s arse whether the Kiwis’ daily press lives or dies.
What sort of country behaves like this? The answer, sadly, is the sort of country which agrees to lend its national carrier $900 million, but then lumbers it with an interest rate roughly twice as high as the current bank rate. Yes, that’s right, Air New Zealand is being charged 9 percent on its majority shareholder’s loan. Why? Because, that way, it will be incentivised to follow only the most cold-blooded and ruthless path to recovery. If the private shareholders in Air New Zealand wish to avoid a complete government takeover of the airline they will demand nothing less.
Nothing could illustrate with more clarity the neoliberal strangle-hold Treasury still has over government decision-making. Even when the market fails; even facing the fallout of a global pandemic; the Treasury boffins are there to ensure that the logic of neoliberalism marches on regardless. Like the American commander in Vietnam, they will not flinch from the necessity of destroying the village in order to save it. Any New Zealand Finance Minister looking to Treasury for support as his cultural heritage goes up in flames – will look in vain.
Over the next few weeks more bad news is almost certain to emerge from New Zealand’s collapsing media organisations. What’s needed is a comprehensive rescue plan: something along the lines of a government takeover of the entire industry pending a more considered re-organisation when the pandemic has passed. Is there no one in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government with the vision and courage to step in and save the single most important guarantee of our democratic political system?
I know there are tens-of-thousands of New Zealand workers who also need help from their government. I know that many of them will forcefully object that there are more important things to save that a handful of magazines with weak balance-sheets and dwindling readerships. My answer to them is simple: “You’re right! And I will be just as loud in my criticism of this government if it fails to protect your jobs. But, I also know how fragile a nation’s culture becomes in moments of crisis. That’s why I am so vehement in my objections to the seeming unwillingness of Jacinda and her colleagues to save New Zealand’s daily newspapers and its very best periodicals.
Our country is on fire. The first priority is to get its people safely away from the flames. The next most important move, however, is to save as much of the people’s house and its contents as possible. To just stand there and watch it burn to the ground, especially when the hoses and water necessary to save it are at hand, would be an unforgiveable dereliction of political duty.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 2 April 2020.