Imagination By-Pass: Had the Communications Minister, Kris Faafoi (above) taken a firm stand with Bauer, reminding them of their obligations to both their staff and the wider New Zealand public, then a much more favourable outcome may well have ensued. He should have made it clear to the Bauer board (which was, almost certainly, unaware) that the mastheads in their stable represented much more, culturally, than mere commercial assets. If the Germans had been informed of these publications’ iconic status, then there is every reason to suppose that they would have responded differently.
WHEN MATTHEW HOOTON is able to outflank the “Left” effortlessly on RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon something has gone very seriously wrong. Only this morning (6/4/20) the grey personification of Labour’s dreary political pragmatism, Stephen Mills, seemed poised to dismiss as nonsense the suggestion that Communications Minister, Kris Faafoi, should have accepted Bauer Media’s offer of its entire New Zealand operation for just $1.00, when Hooton executed a cheeky intercept and lambasted Faafoi’s failure to nationalise some of New Zealand’s most iconic mastheads.
This lamentable failure of the Centre-Left’s imagination was also in evidence on The Standard, where the man who goes by the entirely undeserved moniker of “Mickey Savage” opined: “Clearly the Government has more pressing issues to deal with than producing the likes of Woman’s Weekly.”
It really is depressing to be confronted with imaginative failures of this magnitude. As if Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and their colleagues were planning to drop everything and settle themselves into the editor’s chair at the NZ Woman’s Weekly, The Listener, Metro and North & South. As if the current editors could not have been asked to remain at their posts pending a complete re-organisation of Bauer Media’s New Zealand holdings. As if the current ownership and management structures were the only viable options on offer. Has “Mickey Savage” never heard of worker co-operatives? Is his casual dismissal of public ownership really indicative of the best thinking of which Labour’s activist base is capable?
But, if “Mickey Savage’s” imagination by-pass is merely confirmation of the damage done to Labour by more than 30 years of drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid, how to explain Gordon Campbell’s capitulation to the palpable mendacity of the status-quo? Responding to the destruction of New Zealand’s leading periodicals on his “Werewolf” website, the former Listener employee wrote:
“Weirdly, one news outlet has sought to blame the government for Bauer’s decision to close down its titles, and scarper. According to Newshub, after Bauer had refused the wage subsidy, it then asked the government to buy its magazine titles. The government refused to be held to ransom and in Newshub’s view at least, it was wrong not to do so. Really? One can only imagine the screams of outrage if the government began picking and choosing among the losers, and nationalising them at taxpayer expense. Imagine the jibes if PM Jacinda Ardern had ended up owning the NZ Woman’s Weekly. In reality, this outcome is Bauer’s fault alone.”
Now, it is possible to mitigate “Mickey Savage’s” failure of imagination by pointing to his general unfamiliarity with the New Zealand media landscape. There is no way, however, Campbell can plead ignorance. He is, when all is said and done, one of this country’s best print journalists. He knows that if the Government had taken up Bauer’s offer, it would not have been Jacinda Ardern who “ended up owning the NZ Woman’s Weekly” but the New Zealand people. Has the progressive fire that once burned in Campbell’s journalistic soul been reduced to such a pallid bed of embers that he can no longer see, or summon the energy to care about, the possibilities of public ownership?
Sadly, that was not the worst of it. Since when was a bona fide progressive journalist dissuaded from righting the terrible wrong done to the New Zealand public by the wholesale deregulation of their media industry, by imagining “the screams of outrage” and “jibes” of neoliberal ideologues? Progressive journalism should be made of sterner stuff. It used to be.
The real irony of the Bauer debacle, however, is that in Germany itself (where Bauer Media is based) nothing remotely resembling the events of the past fortnight would have been permitted. As Dr Chris Harris pointed out to The Daily Blog’s readers in the sad aftermath of Bauer’s closure:
“In German commercial law the first duty of management is normally to maintain the enterprise and its workforce as a going concern and try to trade out of difficulties, even if banks and shareholders take a hit.”
In other words, had the Communications Minister taken a firm stand with Bauer, reminding them of their obligations to both their staff and the wider New Zealand public, then a much more favourable outcome may well have ensued. He should have made it clear to the Bauer board (which was, almost certainly, unaware) that the mastheads in their stable represented much more, culturally, than mere commercial assets. If the Germans had been informed of these publications’ iconic status, then there is every reason to suppose that they would have responded differently.
Is it too much to expect the man responsible for New Zealand’s media and communications to know how German politicians would respond to a similar crisis unfolding in their own media industry? Not really. Anyone with a passing interest in international social-democracy, which presumably includes the upper echelons of the NZ Labour Party, would have a working knowledge of Germany’s “social-market” economy.
Acknowledging the reality of Faafoi’s demonstrable political and ideological limitations, however, it should not – at the very least – have been beyond the wit of those advising the Communications Minister to grasp the possibilities inherent in Bauer’s all-too-evident eagerness to quit New Zealand. A well-informed public service, motivated by something more than the avoidance of controversy and ministerial embarrassment, would have made clear to Faafoi the extraordinary opportunity that was opening up in front of him. That those around the Minister proved to be as lacking in boldness and imagination as their boss tells us a great deal about the extent to which the neoliberal tapeworm has hollowed out the New Zealand state.
Beyond the sterling example provided by the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister, New Zealanders could be forgiven for wondering if there is anyone else in the Coalition Cabinet equal to the challenges thrown up by the Covid-19 Pandemic. One has only to consider the curiously disengaged behaviour of Health Minister, David Clark. Yes, there was that ill-advised bike ride, but of even more concern is the fact that, in the midst of a national health emergency, New Zealand’s Health Minister has isolated himself in his Dunedin family home – 600 kilometres south of the capital. Moreover, as citizens’ rights are being necessarily curtailed, why do we hear so little from the Justice Minister and the Attorney-General? With more and more “idiots” flouting the Covid-19 rules, where is the Police Minister?
These are precisely the questions which New Zealand’s magazine editors would have been urging their investigative journalists to answer on behalf of their readers. What a pity, then, that those same editors and journalists no longer have jobs, and that their publications have been shut down.
Especially when all of them could have been saved by the expenditure of just a single dollar.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 7 April 2020.