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$55m Government Journalism Fund Cuts Deep

In this article, Graham Adams discusses the dangers of the government’s $55m journalism fund.

Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom.

Published: 14 September 2021

From The Democracy Project
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Graham Adams: The double-edged sword of the $55m government journalism fund cuts deep.

TVNZ’s apparent lack of interest in Dr Siouxsie Wiles’ unmasked trip to the beach has raised questions about the media’s impartiality. Graham Adams assesses the fallout.

On Sunday morning, National’s Dr Shane Reti asked on Facebook for people’s “thoughts” about TVNZ’s decision not to broadcast the video of Dr Siouxsie Wiles sitting with a friend on a beach unmasked and later wading into the water to chat to her while she swam.

The video had allegedly been sent to 1 News by the person who filmed it. 1 News apparently held onto it for five days before deciding it wasn’t newsworthy enough to broadcast. It was then given to the right-leaning website The BFD, which did publish it — spurring immediate outrage.

The video’s wide circulation on social media quickly turned the incident into a story that the mainstream media could no longer ignore. When they followed it up, it created even more outrage.

Many people saw Wiles’ actions as rank hypocrisy given her regular role in advising the nation on how to behave in a pandemic. But what is perhaps more damaging is that many saw TVNZ’s decision not to publish it as evidence that the state-owned broadcaster was protecting Ardern’s friend and adviser.

On Reti’s post, there was debate among the more than 900 comments about whether Wiles had, indeed, broken the Level 4 lockdown rules in Auckland. But what should thoroughly alarm media chiefs — including those at TVNZ — was the repeated refrain that the media’s loyalty has been purchased by Ardern’s government via its $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund.

Bob McCoskrie, director of Family First, commented: “Welcome to NZ media. Paid for and ‘bought’ by your government. Apparently nobody has heard of ‘conflict of interest’.”

Another commenter said: “The $55 million is paying dividends” while yet another declared, “$55 million buys the government control of the media.”

Unfortunately for the government, and journalists, the idea that much political coverage is now heavily influenced by the fund is widespread. And so is the belief that the grants are deliberately being parcelled out over the next three years to keep journalists onside until the next election.

On Saturday, former Labour Cabinet minister Michael Bassett published a column titled “Media Greedies” in which he claimed that the reason “the handouts have been introduced is almost certainly a ministerial intention to keep the media sweet during the run-up to the election”.

He concluded: “The media who have put out their hands and cheerfully pocketed taxpayer funds they don’t need have only themselves to blame if the public smells a rat and begins to doubt their message.”

And they do. Whenever The Spinoff, for instance, asks on social media for readers’ financial support there will inevitably be comments from those who strongly object to a begging letter given they dislike the website’s politics and the fact they have already involuntarily paid through their taxes to keep it operating.

The Taxpayers’ Union has calculated that taxpayer support for The Spinoff has amounted to an astonishing $2.4 million in the past year alone, with a total of at least $6.1 million in its seven-year history.

These figures prompted Daily Blog editor Martyn Bradbury to write: “I always thought everyone knew The Spinoff was nothing more than a social-engineering government propaganda platform for middle-class millennials masquerading as ‘journalism’ but the amount of government money poured into The Spinoff has surprised us all.”

As a result of such widespread cynicism, one of the proudest boasts for any media organisation is fast becoming the claim it hasn’t received any government funding.

The BFD explained how it came to host the now-infamous video of Wiles and her friend on the beach: “You may be wondering why it is The BFD that is making this [story] public. The simple reason is that we are not part of the Prime Minister’s Team of $55 million. This story was given to 1News”… which “spiked” the story five days later.

“The reason given was that it wasn’t a politician so there was no public interest in the story. Make no mistake, this story was suppressed by an editor at 1News.”

The news stories initially focused on Wiles for what was deemed hypocritical behaviour given she has repeatedly told the nation masks should be worn outside and that people should stay close to home during the lockdown. But the focus quickly switched to Judith Collins when she made the monumental blunder of calling Wiles “a big, fat hypocrite”.

The story instantly became one about Collins’ lack of judgment and her suitability to be National’s leader. Her defence that her accusation was simply a common expression and had no connection to Wiles’ weight didn’t wash.

Now, National looks as if it might be trying to turn the tables by exploiting the extensive suspicion that much of the media is in thrall to the government. It’s very hard to see a Facebook post by the party’s respected deputy leader, Dr Reti, asking for “thoughts” as anything other than an attempt to stir that particular pot, which is already on a rapid simmer.

National will be hoping that as more people come to believe the media is influenced by government money, the more easily they will be persuaded that its politicians are unfairly facing overwhelmingly hostile journalists.

A sure sign that the media itself is uncomfortably aware of the public’s perception of its Faustian bargain is the fact that the nation’s two biggest news sites have already felt obliged to deny they are operating under its influence.

After former Dominion editor Karl du Fresne criticised the Public Interest Journalism Fund (which he has dubbed the “Pravda Project”) on his blog in June, Stuff’s editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson wrote a long op-ed titled: “Why government money won’t corrupt our journalism”.

On Saturday, a column in the NZ Herald by businessman Bruce Cotterill claimed the majority of the media was too soft on the government (although he made an exception — albeit a lukewarm one — for the Herald itself).

However, he suggested it was time for news organisations to consider refunding some or all of the “Covid-induced $55 million media support package” after record levels of government-funded advertising — “particularly around Covid-19 and the controversial Three Waters proposals” — had goosed their profits.

Cotterill, a former CEO of ACP Magazines, pulled no punches: “If there is any risk that the media is skewing their representation of the performance of government, then we are indeed on shaky ground. In fact I suggest that there is nothing quite as dangerous in any democracy as a media that is beholden to the government.”

Extraordinarily, the column was followed by a statement titled “Proudly independent”, and signed by no fewer than eight senior Herald editors declaring their editorial independence was exercised “without fear or favour”.

National will also be hoping that the Prime Minister will be obliged at some point to deny that her munificent handouts exert any influence on editorial coverage — which would flush the question right out into the open.

In fact, she has already done that twice in Parliament but the public unfortunately wouldn’t have any idea about that because — surprise! — it wasn’t reported in the mainstream media, despite the significance of the topic to a democracy.

And it wasn’t as if the exchange in July was low-key or colourless. In fact, it was one of the more memorable exchanges in the House.

Judith Collins asked the Prime Minister: “What does she say to people who are concerned that her $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund — which includes numerous criteria for media to adhere to — is influencing the editorial decisions of media outlets in New Zealand?”

Grant Robertson burst out laughing, while Ardern declaimed emphatically, “I would abso-loot-ely reject that!”. Then, grinning broadly and stifling a laugh, she added: “I would put the question to the media and ask whether they agree with that sentiment.”

It was an absurd response given the media is hardly going to be an impartial witness in its own case when it has been accused of having been effectively bought by $55 million of government money.

However, Ardern didn’t realise she was in trouble until David Seymour asked a more specific question: “What then would happen to a media outlet that received money under the fund and wanted to report a story deemed inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is one of the requirements to adhere to?”

Ardern’s smile vanished. She replied: “I absolutely reject the idea that there is political influence in broadcasting and media!”

She sat down quickly to Opposition cries of “Answer the question!” — which she manifestly hadn’t.

Yet, somehow, the Press Gallery didn’t see this dramatic exchange about a fundamental aspect of democracy as worth reporting — which again raises the question of media impartiality.

Seymour was entirely on the money, of course, about the media fund’s requirements being very specific about how the Treaty is discussed.

The section describing its goals recommends “actively promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner“. And the first of the general eligibility criteria requires all applicants to show a “commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to Māori as a Te Tiriti partner”.

To those who are deeply suspicious of these criteria being included, the fact that journalists rarely (if ever) mention the impending Three Water reforms handing 50 per cent control of the nation’s water to iwi is compelling evidence it is deliberately avoiding their most contentious aspect. Viewing the Treaty as a partnership is, of course, the basis for such a revolutionary policy.

Their suspicions will be heightened after TVNZ’s Q&A on Sunday in which Jack Tame treated viewers to a soft-soap interview with Nanaia Mahuta about the reforms.

In a 13-minute interview, Tame let the Local Government minister get away with a preposterous amount of flannel about the proposed centralised system to manage drinking, waste and storm water throughout the country.

Defeated at every turn by a minister who appeared to have been highly “media trained” in the art of evasiveness, Tame failed miserably to get an answer to his main questions — namely, how many councils are definitely on board with the restructuring and whether the government will force recalcitrant councils to join.

Most egregiously, Tame made no attempt to ask her anything about the powers that would be granted to iwi under the reforms, which is among councils’ major objections.

It should be noted that no one is alleging that individual journalists benefit personally from the fund, but rather the government’s largesse may make media organisations look more favourably — consciously or unconsciously — on its policies and supporters than they might without it. In short, it is alleged to function as a halo effect surrounding the government.

A paradoxical result of the media fund being put under the spotlight after Wiles’ escapade could, of course, be favourable to National in an unusual way. Namely, journalists may feel obliged to be much more critical of the government just to demonstrate they are not beholden to it.

One thing seems certain as the issue of impartiality comes further into focus. If Collins or Seymour asks the Prime Minister again about the media fund influencing political coverage, the exchange will be much more likely to be reported.

While the outrage directed at Dr Wiles has already faded, the ripples from TVNZ failing to cover her chatting unmasked on the beach and paddling in the shallows are spreading a long way beyond Judges Bay.

This article is republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.

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