You get what you pay for

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    I started out my career at TV3. Back in 1997 we were the underdogs, the upstarts sticking it to the establishment, significantly and specifically the state-owned and at that time  uber-conservative TVNZ. The building was a bit rough around the edges – it still had a smoking room (Chez Bob’s was its nickname) but the ethos and camaraderie made the low wages and round-the-clock shifts bearable. 

    And everything in that building at 3 Flower Street centred around the newsroom. A young journalist called John Campbell fronted our 6pm news bulletin with Carol Hirschfield, up against TVNZ’s mighty Holmes show. Mike McRoberts was busy winning awards for his investigative work on 60 Minutes. Wendy Petrie fronted our late evening Nightline. Our news updates ran hourly through the overnight shift. Everyone took it very seriously.

    But news gathering is expensive, television news gathering mind-bogglingly so. Each ‘VT’ machine we used (and there was about 10 in my department alone) cost more than $200,000 in 1997 (more than the average Auckland house at the time). And the cameras and sound gear and edit suites… I never could quite work out how that budget could work.

    This news gathering, which media academic and former Gulf News editor Greg Treadwell has called “core infrastructure for democracy”, was supported by advertisers who gained a sense of credibility and authority for their products along with our vast national audience. 

    Much of this money has now been siphoned off to offshore techno fat cats who appropriate journalist’s hard work for free. 

    Make no mistake – there is still plenty of money being spent on advertising. It’s just that the lion’s share of it is being sluiced off overseas to the tech giants with no regulation, very little taxation and no compensation to the newsrooms that produce it, including ours. 

    And it’s killing our independent media. 

    Australia and Canada have played hardball over payment for content exploited by the social media and search engine companies and after a few hissy fits, Facebook and Google avoided designation by cutting deals outside the legislation. But this week Facebook’s parent company, Meta, is again throwing its toys out of the toybox and refusing to renew those deals. So far, the Australian Government is holding firm, but in New Zealand successive governments have merely sniped ineffectively from the side-lines. Former broadcast minister Willie Jackson admitted last week that he could have done more during his time in the role.

    Will our current government be clever enough to see the windfall New Zealand has lost? Taxed fairly, the hundreds of millions of dollars collected from these offshore giants could be used in supporting a healthy and fair fourth estate with the police, health services and social services getting a decent boost too. After all, these are the groups who are left to mop up the mess left by internet crime, cyberbullying, terrible mental health statistics and the growing social problems associated with these platforms.

    What does not seem to be in the conversation as the Prime Minister and current Broadcasting Minister Melissa Lee flippantly dismiss the issue saying people will get their news “through other mediums” is a fundamental  understanding of what a newsroom actually does. It does not matter whether you have a 6pm television news bulletin, a website or a news stack. The fact is a newsroom is the place where trained journalists spend their working week gathering information and reporting it to the public. They serve as public forums, information collectors, fact checkers and disseminators and conduits through which many of the routine activities necessary to a healthy civil society happen – unnoticed until they are gone. Crucially, these processes foster tolerance in the sense that they make it possible to observe the diversity, the ‘otherness’, around us, without requiring us to join in or even approve. They help us rub along together – no small achievement. 

    News reporters bear witness, travel to war zones, parliament, council meetings, courts of law, talk to people, exercise judgment, consciously seek out alternative views and perspectives. They facilitate the democratic processes, holding politicians and corporations to account. They shine a torch on issues which we might not want to see, but will fester in the dark.

    Ironically, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, no fan of the press gallery and one of the mainstream media’s biggest critics, saw the closure of Newshub as a “disaster for this country’s democracy”.

    Even more ironically, Warner Bros. Discovery boss Glen Kyne was in front of a parliamentary select committee less than two weeks ago, urging the government to pass the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, which would force the likes of Google and Meta to pay for the journalism and content helping drive their profitable business models.

    “I think everything we’ve talked about with the government, whether it be the Fair Digital Bargaining [Bill], our posturing for Kordia [transmission costs] relief, the review of the Broadcasting Act… we think that they are all critical and overdue for the sector,” Kyne said.

    A large part of the proposal to close Newshub (it will always be 3 National News to me, Newshub came later) was a result of ‘market settings’, he said, although he did not think a solution to any one of those particular three issues would change the outcome.

    Journalism is too important to be left to those who fear their lack of power over it. We deserve better. A quality independent media, whether broadcast, online or printed, is a critical public good. Without it we will have nothing but shopping channels and online ‘bots’ gibbering at each other. • Merrie Hewetson

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