Tuesday 7 April 2020

A Lamentable Failure of Imagination.

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.


Simon Cohen said...

Not only the 2km car journey for a bike ride but now a 20 km car journey for a walk on the beach with all the family.Also he has said he needs to be in Dunedin to be with his family.
Really the paucity of quality in this government is demonstrated by this idiot being ranked the 9th Labour MP in the cabinet.Words fail me.

Anonymous said...

Are the Listener and Women's Weekly worth saving? The Listener is a decrepit echo-chamber of centrist/neoliberal orthodoxies about the economy and society. Can NZ's media landscape really be remade by propping these things up? I get that you are upset that some German in a corporate meeting room has decided to trash the jobs of your fellow NZ journalists - but that happened to some of us non-journalists years ago and it was just regarded business as usual - rational actors making rational choices about their profit margins.
If something outside the Bauer stable such as the NZ Herald was to fall over, would you want to prop that up too - keeping the grisly crew of Roughan, O'Sullivan, Hosking, Young, Du Plessis, Allan etc. etc? We need to hear entirely new and different voices.

Kat said...

I listened to that segment on Nine to Noon and came to the conclusion that occasionally, and on a par with every other blue moon, when Hooton stops being a puppet poodle for the National party he can make sense. I agree with him that it is about retaining equity in the crisis. I was surprised however with his "cheeky" proposition that Jacinda should now do a Churchill and nationalise everything, until the crisis is over.

manfred said...

This is devastating.

Ardern and Robertson are high calibre politicians and we're very lucky to have them but what can we do about this never ending series of f*ck us from these ministers?

Perhaps you could help us on that one, Kat?

manfred said...

Maybe they're just happy to see them go.

North and South was the only one with integrity, despite its ideological limitations.

The Listener stopped being a left wing publication during the second term of Clark's government.

Maybe it would have been too much trouble and not nearly enough of a priority to rebalance the editorial lines of these magazines.

As Chris often similarly points out, there are very few reasonable journalists left any more.

But I would still like to hear what Kat thinks about this weird problem of fantastic leadership in the Labour government coupled with so many foolish ministers.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Hooton is slick but shallow. As they use say about Ronald Reagan, you could walk through his deepest thoughts and not get your ankles wet.
Perhaps all those people that are condemning the Minister for driving to the beach, would like to explain why the hell driving 20 km to a beach is worse than walking a kilometre to a beach? It's an arbitrary and ridiculous...... whatever it is.......... regulation – doubt if it's even that. If I were to criticise them and it would be for staying out of the public eye when we need someone to spout platitudes and reassurance. He seems to be leaving that up to the Prime Minister, and perhaps that's a good thing to do as she looks far more sympathetic than he does.
This criticism, when not coupled with criticism of selfish people who congregate on beaches in groups, and other people who forget about social distancing and put others in danger, is political. And until someone comes up with a reason why you can't drive to a beach, or an idea of how driving 20 km puts me in any more danger than walking down the shops, I'm flipping it the metaphorical bird.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


So I presume you conservatives are now going to be all over this like a cheap suit? I suspect not, even though it's a more egregious example than Clark's.

Fisherman said...

I don’t see how you can hold Adern and Robertson up as exemplars of knowledge when they have today declared an extension of the state of emergency, when no such emergency now exists with the covid-virus under control and with the only cases we will have in two days time being those that have been imported into the country since the lockdown started. Methinks Jacinda’s job prospects at the U.N. are not looking to good when that body responds to NZ’s illegal state of emergency.

greywarbler said...

Is the suggestion to nationalise everything Kat, or are you suffering from that feeling of weariness as one disaster piles up on another to the point where we tend to throw our hands in the air and surrender our discernment?

Wayne Mapp said...


You are too focussed on your own biases. The test is not what you think, but what the market says. The Listener and the Womens Weekly almost certainly are profitable or could be made so. If there is credible pathway to do that, which might require an initial loan from govt, so be it. Even though they may not be your taste.

Greg Presland said...

Gee Chris

In the middle of a pandemic when the country's collective health and economy are under major threat and possibly a third of businesses are going to the wall do you really think the Government should be sweating about saving the Listener?

David George said...

The $1 purchase price sounds like a great bargain but it would involve also taking on the existing liabilities and commitments of the magazines. They are/have been clearly failing financially so these will be significant. Once the current crisis is over their grim commercial prospects will remain. What would be the point and where is the value for the Kiwi taxpayer.
Their positive value is in the goodwill of their titles so I expect these will, at some stage, be offered for sale. A good opportunity for someone or group of investors there; get on the phone Chris.

Unknown said...

Chris - a few thoughts:

- These publications were probably on their last legs, with a dwindling and ageing readership. Print media does not look like a good business for the future. This has been known for decades.

- Constantly singing the praises of Jacinda (especially in the women's titles) may not be a good business model (in the same way as resolutely left wing media in the UK and USA are seeing falling readership/viewership).

- When Jacinda personally closed down all their non-daily publications, it must surely have been the last straw. Bauer will have been thinking: "With friends like that...".

Jacinda and Labour deserve what they got in this case.

All the best.

Left Thinking said...

$1? Really! Why the hell didn't they go for it? What about the historical archives? What about the journalism and the journalists? Yes, worker cooperatives or public service mags similar to RNZ in operation.

Kokila Patel said...

This is really a chardonnay socialist issue. Once a upon a time a very long time ago, some of these publications were well read and like across NZ, not anymore. No one under the age of 40 cares. If you do have a niche interest in topics featured in say the Listener, there is the internet and blogs like this one...

Slugger said...

NZ Women's Weekly is hardly Landfall. Let it die.

Geoff Fischer said...

In the "New Zealand Geographic" we have the world's most outstanding journal of popular natural and social history. So instead of lamenting the loss of the "Listener" (I will not speak ill of the dead) we could be cherishing what we have. In depth long-form journalism, great writing on important themes by the very best kind of New Zealander. We are doing very very well.