Speaker by Various Artists

23

How StuffMe looked from the regions

by Andrew Frame

Just after the Commerce Commission announced its rejection of Fairfax and NZME’s “#StuffMe” merger bid yesterday, Sinead Boucher, Executive Editor for Fairfax Media, tweeted her reaction. The decision was, she said, “Very disappointing for NZ journalism”.

I scoffed, because to my mind the merger going ahead threatened something very important in New Zealand journalism and media – a wide range of information and opinion from a wide range of people and places.

In the months between ComCom’s initial and final decisions New Zealand media operations had been under the spotlight. TVNZ was planning to cut costs with a “regional-focused” restructuring plan, while on Stuff they focused on how Facebook (one of the biggest threats to NZ media according to #StuffMe supporters) was affecting people’s lives and changing the media landscape.

Stuff also featured an opinion piece by former Mediaworks news chief and now Newsroom website co-founder Mark Jennings on the TVNZ restructure that got far less attention than it deserved. Because at its heart was the problem that has caused NZ media to slide down the slippery slope to this point where the newspaper companies saw merger as the only option.

Jennings was right on some points. As a "cost cutting" move this saves very little. TVNZ just spent $60 million refurbishing its Auckland headquarters, and at the quoted wage of $60,000 the network could afford to hire 16 or 17 new regional TVNZ staff for the price of their one CEO’s $1 million salary.

If TVNZ was truly serious about covering the regions it would invest far more than just one multitasking “video journalist”. It would build a studio, hire local camera, sound, editing and reporting staff – that would be a commitment to the regions.

But Jennings got one thing very wrong in his opinion piece and it drives a chronic problem in New Zealand’s broadcast media. One that has seen  viewership and advertising revenue fall and the audience rely less and less on traditional New Zealand media. Jennings doesn’t believe TVNZ having reporters in regional centres is a good idea because:

Viewers in Invercargill don’t give a toss about Whanganui’s sewage problems.

There are simply not enough stories of national significance in Nelson or Queenstown or Tauranga to justify a full-time TV reporter in those areas.

In other words: New Zealand’s regions don’t matter.

Apparently nothing newsworthy (other than the odd murder or natural disaster) exists outside of the main centres – especially Auckland, where New Zealand’s main broadcast media are based.

Auckland is indeed a big city. With around 1.4 million residents a fair bit of stuff, some of it newsworthy, happens there. But New Zealand’s population is nearing 4.5 million; less than one third of New Zealand lives in Auckland.

Yet what do we see plastered across our news websites every day and on national television news every night despite our location?

Auckland issues.

Over recent years, Auckland house prices, homelessness and traffic congestion have taken a lion’s share of national news media coverage. (Ironically, Aucklanders may not be home in time to watch 6pm news items on traffic congestion because they’re still stuck in it.)

Do those same Invercargill viewers Jennings refers to "give a toss" about those Auckland issues? Is something that might be relevant to a third of the country’s population "nationally significant" to the other two thirds?

No.

Using Jennings’ theory, reporting on what could be a serious public health problem for the people of Whanganui caused by corporate shortcutting for profit or council graft (problems not just limited to the main centres and deserving of airing nationally so those responsible can be held to account and the same problems don’t happen elsewhere) is shelved because "no one cares about that".

Yet everyone from Cape Reinga to Bluff needs to hear about a breakdown on the North-western Motorway causing a 15-minute commuter delay?

There’s something very wrong with that ideology and it’s not just limited to New Zealand television.

Non-commercial Radio New Zealand, by comparison, does cover the entire country. Stories from regional New Zealand are commonplace and it RNZ produces them on a far smaller (and rather criminally frozen) budget than its commercial radio compatriots. It also soundly beats those same commercial networks in their almighty ratings quest.

The only gripe I would have with RNZ is that while the likes of The Panel do at least feature opinions stretching the length and breadth of New Zealand, main centre media, PR, political and pollster voices are still a bit too commonplace and not necessarily representative of a true New Zealand voice or opinion.

Aside from Radio New Zealand, the widest geographical coverage of New Zealand by network broadcasters comes from Māori Television and TVNZ’s Te Karere. Both cover Māori issues in places like Northland, East Cape, King Country, Whanganui. Māori media, at least, readily present stories of “national news significance” outside of Auckland and other main centres.

Of all broadcast media, radio has always been the most “personal”. It’s just you and your radio. Indeed, one of the first things they teach in announcer training is that you aren’t talking to hundreds or thousands of people, but to just one person listening at home, or in their car.

It used to be each regional centre had its own radio station, or two. Broadcasting was  “live and local, 24 hours a day” (I know – I did the midnight to dawn part of the 24 hours). If there was a fire in Hastings, you heard about it straight away. A crash blocked a road in Napier? They gave you detour directions as it was cleared. Some minor local celebrities were created, but it also kept you close. You often met announcers in the street.

In the 90s, profits started to take over. Individual stations were bought up, joined into networks nationally simulcast from Auckland and local content was stripped back and in many cases away completely lost.

Call your “local” station today to ask about a fire in Havelock and you will be asked “Is that Havelock near Nelson, or Havelock North in Hawke’s Bay?” There’s no longer that closeness or community, because in New Zealand media “the regions don’t matter.”

Last time I checked the reach of one of NZ’s major radio networks, it had 25 frequencies/“stations” across the country. Each broadcast five to seven different shows per day with one to two announcers hosting each show. Seventeen of those stations had a sole local announcer, usually on a breakfast show, and three stations had two local announcers – again breakfast duos. Four stations had no local announcers at all – their “local” announcer was simulcast from a neighbouring region.

In total, the network had 31 “local” announcers, given that the eight announcers who were simulcast throughout the country from the network’s main studio in Auckland were technically “local” in Auckland. This means around 158 announcing positions across the country – once covered by local broadcasters, covering local issues – are now covered by the same 8 people in Auckland.

That hardly seems fair on local listeners, local broadcasters or local issues.

But it’s no longer good enough for these Auckland-based networks to try and dominate one media platform – they must dominate all platforms across the country! We now have the same “media talent” (rather than common, decent journalists) on simulcast breakfast radio, with regular opinion columns in newspapers and websites owned by the same networks, as well as being the headline act nightly television news and current affairs shows!

As the reach of New Zealand media has expanded the range of content, opinion and input has drastically narrowed. #StuffMe would have only exacerbated that.

And it’s not just news shows.

No matter how dire, repetitive, convoluted, or just plain rubbish New Zealand’s “reality television” offerings are, the networks that screen them will still promote them and sing their praises through their print, radio and online arms.

“Hey, did you see ‘Show Z’ last night, wasn’t it great!?” they will broadcast, tweet and opine.

“Oh, look! Who just happens to be walking on to the set of “My Kitchen Garden Rebuild is New Zealand’s Top Singer” – it’s Dave and Jane from ‘Bland FM’ with the contestants’ latest challenge!”

Need a host for your new show? Why have auditions for someone new, when you can just shimmy a current staff member over from another of your network’s brands?

New Zealand’s media “talent pool” has become a puddle and it’s evaporating fast.

Can’t someone else have a turn, please?

Yes they can!

This is where the wonder of social media comes in and why our current “traditional” media networks seem so scared and threatened by it. Because the likes of Facebook are doing the job TVNZ used to do with shows like Top Half, Town and Around and Today Tonight.

The BBC, by comparison, still has regional news shows following national broadcasts and has done so for years. TVNZ and other media chould still be doing this today if things weren’t so Auckland-centric and fiscally focused.

New Zealand’s network media gave up on two thirds of New Zealand years ago. When they did, they cut out two thirds of their potential viewership and advertising revenue, because guess what? People like seeing their home town, issues relevant to them and familiar brands on the television, reading about them in the newspaper and hearing about it on the radio.

So it’s only fair that if the majority of media coverage in New Zealand ignores them, the majority of New Zealanders switched off their televisions and radios and turned to Twitter and Facebook on their computers, Ipads and smartphones for issues relevant to them.

Social media does what it says on the packet – it's social. It has a worldwide broadcast range, but it can also have the most personal of touches and community spirit. It works superbly. Ask online about that fire in Havelock and you will be told precisely where it is, when it started, how big it is and likely get pictures and video live from the scene.

People disenchanted with a lack of local coverage will create their own groups covering the news and issues important to them in their cities and regions. If traditional broadcast media’s income, reach and influence are hurt by that, then they have only themselves to blame.

Because regional New Zealand does matter. Two thirds of the country is too big to ignore. New Zealand viewers, listeners and media consumers – regional and metropolitan alike deserve better.

But what would I know – I’m from Hawke’s Bay!

Andrew Frame lives and blogs in Napier.

59

Britain: the crisis isn't Brexit, it's Labour

by Andrew Miller

For all her public denials, it never made sense that Theresa May would wait to 2020 for an election. Now’s probably as good a moment as she’ll get to grab a mandate for her vision of post-Brexit Britain.

Her reasons for calling a snap election, though, don’t stack up. Brexit related polls have hardly moved, and Labour whipped the Article 50 vote despite now trying to walk a ‘Soft Brexit’ tightrope. Most people simply assumed the obvious: that it’s a party-political decision. In normal circumstances Brexit would make the government incredibly vulnerable, but these are anything but normal circumstances.

Despite the vagaries of FPTP a massive Tory majority is inevitiable – but real story of the 2017 election remains the future of Labour. Polls suggest it’s potentially facing electoral oblivion. With no possibility of being overtaken and no chance of government, they’ll be left as a kind of zombie opposition.

Towards the end of her doomed Labour leadership campaign, Yvette Cooper made an impassioned speech in defence of Labour in government, and its internationalist values. Whilst it was far too late to affect the result, the failure of the Labour Party to address the questions she raised are likely to shape the upcoming election .

A few years ago, I met Jeremy Corbyn on a handful of occasions and he came across as a man who’s spent his 30-year back bench career talking to people who agree with him. You never sensed he could go beyond preaching to the choir. After two painful election defeats his victory wasn’t totally inexplicable, even if the fact it was Corbyn seemed quite surreal. Suddenly the British left had their ‘real alternative’.

What’s happened since should come as a surprise to no one. His complete lack of experience, and far-left links meant the car crash we’re witnessing was entirely predictable. He and hardcore supporters carry most of the blame for Labour’s current predicament.

There’s been little of the ‘Kinder politics’ promised, with MPs constantly told to ‘Fuck off and join the Tories’. His candidacy acted as a magnet for not just Trots and Tankies, but radical activists, disillusioned Labour members and well-meaning campaigners to project their hopes onto Corbyn. At times it smacks of a personality cult.

Despite polls suggesting the electorate don’t want a bar of him, blame’s been placed entirely on the media and the refusal of ‘Blairites’ to get with programme. The low point was arguably the emergence of ‘Brick truthers’ in the wake of the attack on Angela Eagle’s constituency. Even historic by-election defeats appear to have made no dent in their outlook, but for some reality has started to sink in, and this gallery of high profile u-turns makes for comically grim reading.

One of the most depressing aspects of all this is how open many supporters have been admitting they don’t care if Labour wins power. Corbyn even tried to kick start a suicidal civil war, which was at least instantly kyboshed by party officials as ‘impractical’.

Even when promoting ideas which chime with the public, his personal brand remains electoral kryptonite, and there appears to be no coherent economic strategy . It seems inevitable Labour will suffer historic loses, at a time Britain desperately needs a credible opposition.

Sadly, things are likely to get worse as Corbyn’s incompetence has only ever been half the picture. Word has it that the Tory campaign will increasingly focus on Corbyn’s fitness for public office. The problem Labour faces is that claims of ‘smears’ or ‘guilt by association’ will be met with Corbyn’s own words being quoted back to him, on views he’s held his entire adult life.

The material at times seems limitless, including appointing Seamus Milne, supporting Sein Fein/IRA, and a toxic mess over anti-Semitism. There’s the denial of atrocities in Kosovo, paid appearances on Press TV, links to STWC ... the list goes on. You can throw in a controversial take on NATO, and a view on Trident renewal which contradicts Labour’s official policy and makes them seem incapable of dealing with fundamental matters of national security. While many of these positions are uncontroversial on the ‘anti-imperialist’ left, the general public is a different matter entirely, one the Tories are now set to fully exploit.

Some Labour supporters have concluded there no good options for Labour voters, and no one outside of Corbyn’s inner circle is talking about winning. Despite this, Nick Cohen fears that even a crushing defeat may see the hard left cling on. With polls suggesting Scottish Labour is in danger of being wiped out, and that Wales may be lost for the first time since universal suffrage, where they go from here is impossible to predict.

Brexit may mean tough times ahead for May’s government, but for now the crisis of truly historic proportions belongs purely to the left.  

80

The Brexlection

by John Palethorpe

In 1926 H.L Mencken proposed that the classical liberal solution to unaccountable democratic governance is to put more power in the hands of the voters, writing in summation "The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy."

The last four years of British politics seems hell-bent on disproving this. Since 2014 there have been three major democratic exercises, and each one has left the country in a more fragmented, polarised and parlous state. So, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap election earlier this week.

Things are getting weird over there, not that they weren’t weird to begin with. PM May, who was selected by her own MPs unopposed after all the other post-Cameron candidates combusted, had spent nine months insisting she had a mandate to carry out Brexit from the 2016 vote and a mandate to govern from the 2015 General Election – and that Scotland could shove its talk of independence after 2014’s Independence Referendum vote. There was not going to be a snap election. Until there was.

Some hopeful sorts imagined that May was seeking a larger majority in Parliament, up from the 4 seats Cameron won two years ago. That, they insisted, would mean the PM wouldn’t be beholden to the harder Brexiteers among her own party. Nice idea, but it seems May is seeking an increased majority and a mandate to take whatever decisions she may have to in future and depower her own rebellious MPs, and the unelected House of Lords, who have sought to take the sharp edges off the Brexit scalpel.

Why now though? The Conservative Party are currently at 48% in the polls, enjoying a 20% lead over Her Majesty’s Opposition. And, to put it bluntly, UK Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is an complete fucking mess. As the election was announced sitting MPs started indicating they did not want their party leader as Prime Minister. Some, fearing an electoral wipeout, have already declined to stand again. Others, viewing a colossal defeat as the only way to remove Corbyn, are remaining quiet and hoping to hang onto their seats to take advantage of the political wreckage.

So, it’s an election about Theresa May being allowed to do what she thinks is best over Brexit without any specifics being offered to the public, hoping that her personal popularity - she’s currently polling as well as a second term Tony Blair - will tide her over. Early indications are that her u-turn on holding a snap election has been welcomed by the public.

The Scottish Independence Referendum sheared off trust between Scottish voters and the traditional Westminster parties, as evidenced by Labour’s annihilation north of the border the following year. The Brexit vote has had a different effect on Britain, polarising opinion in a manner which cuts across party lines.

In the case of the Conservatives, PM May campaigned for Remain, but has taken such a strident Thatcher-esque ‘Brexit means Brexit’ approach that she has the support of many of the 52%. That ruthless instinct for power which holds together many pro-business, socially conservative parties has ensured that, while there is some discontent, the overwhelming public support for Brexit has quietened any serious attempt to derail the early stages of departure from the EU.

Labour have been in turmoil since the Brexit vote. The attempt to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader failed, as Labour MPs found that they did not have the support of their own party members and could not find a candidate amongst them who was popular enough with anyone. Corbyn has supported Brexit, albeit in the half-arsed manner in which he does most things.

The Liberal Democrats, fronted by Tim Farron, have been the most pro-Remain party. If you recall, they were savagely reduced from 57 to just 8 MPs in 2015 after five years in coalition with the Conservatives. Tony Blair has come out in support of them, which means they’re in real trouble now. However as the party of Remain, they are hoping to stage a comeback in seats they lost to the Conservatives - relying on the 48% who votes to stay in the European Union.

The SNP, it’s fair to say, are not happy. In 2014 their independence bid was derailed by, among others, the insistence by Westminster parties that Scotland would have to leave the E.U which would wreak economic havoc. The following year the Scottish public, having enough of this, reduced the main Westminster parties down to single seats in Scotland, with the SNP surging to become the third largest party in Parliament. Then in 2016 the Scottish public voted overwhelmingly to remain in the E.U, only to be dragged towards the exit doors by the English voters – led by the same bastards who’d told them what a terrible idea leaving the E.U would be two years earlier.

Nicola Sturgeon wants another independence referendum. Theresa May is refusing to have one.

Then there’s Northern Ireland, who haven’t got a power-sharing agreement at Stormont following the resignation and death of Martin McGuinness. They are aghast at the lack of progress on ensuring the Good Friday Agreement, regarding the Northern Ireland/Irish Republic border, is maintained after Britain exits the E.U and restrictions on freedom of movement return.

Finally there’s the public. Brexit is popular among those who voted for it and their intent to see it through is not deterred by the quite clear signals that they’re going to end up worse off for it. Instead newspapers howl about the E.U relocating E.U institutions to E.U nations as if they’re punishing Britain, while spending time rhapsodising about how the colour of passports will change to be just like they were in the old days (1988 was when the first burgundy E.U ones began to be issued, if you were wondering).

Remainers, on the other hand, find themselves in a situation where the hated Liberal Democrats and Tony Blair appear to be the only people who represent them. Yes, that is as bad as it sounds. It’s like finding out United Future and David Seymour are the only people who agree with you.

Whatever the result of the June 8th election, one thing is certain. Article 50, which was triggered in late March, grants an E.U Member State two years of negotiations to establish departure settlement. Negotiations have not even begun on Brexit yet, and are unlikely to start until after the election - as Parliament dissolves in early May. That’s May the month, not May the Prime Minister, although it’s entirely possible this whole mess might dissolve her as well.

At the end of Carry On Up The Khyber the British colonial forces win via some kilt base shenanigans and raise a Union Flag over their compound, emblazened with the slogan ‘I’m Backing Britain’. Peter Butterworth turns to the camera and says; "Of course, they’re all raving mad, you know".

He was quite right then, and he’s quite right now. Unlike H.L Mencken, it would seem.

17

The elephant in Room 903

by Steven Price

“Prime Minister, there is a report that an elephant has escaped from the zoo and is sitting in your office,” said the Prime Minister’s first advisor.

“That’s terrible!” said the Prime Minister. “Voters will not like it at all.”

“We have denied it, of course”, said the second advisor.

“That’s a relief,” said the Prime Minister. “So there is no elephant?”

The Prime Minister’s first advisor looked at the Prime Minister’s second advisor, who looked at the Prime Minister’s third advisor. Feet were shuffled.

“Ah, with great respect, Prime Minister,” said the second advisor at last. “It may be doubted whether that is quite the right question. In the circumstances.”

“The real point is, these elephant allegations are all very speculative,” said the third advisor. “There’s no proof.”

“There is no evidence of an elephant then?” asked the Prime Minister.

“No, none” said the first advisor. “Well, some people who work for us say they saw it. But they are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they give their names, so that hardly counts. And some others are foreigners, so they don’t count either. And there are others too, but they’re dead, and that’s all very sad but at the end of the day you can’t really call them witnesses.”

“There is a little smashed furniture,” admitted the second advisor. “And some peanut shells and elephant droppings have been found. But it’s all very circumstantial. There could be a thousand explanations.”

“Plainly there seems to be something there that’s large and grey and has a trunk,” said the third advisor. “That cannot be denied. But that doesn’t mean we have an elephant. Many things are large and grey and have a trunk. A station wagon, for example. An ash tree. A stout Amish woman going on holiday.”

“At best, we only have indications of something with elephant-like features,” said the first advisor.

“Unsubstantiated talk about something resembling a particular large animal,” suggested the second.

“Politically motivated allegations by elephant conspiracy theorists”, said the third.

“You see? It’s all quite confusing,” said the first advisor. “It hardly counts as reliable evidence of an elephant.”

“Besides, the report has got it all wrong,’ said the third advisor. “It says the elephant is in your office in room 904. But that’s not your office! Your office is 903! We can quite genuinely reassure the public that there is not, and has never been, an elephant in room 904.”

“Phew!” said the Prime Minister. “So we can tell them that the claim that there’s an elephant in the PM’s office is wrong, then.”

“Ah. That’s not quite what I said, Prime Minister.”

“The point is that the allegations are not credible,” interrupted the first advisor. “You can’t expect accusers to be taken seriously if they can’t even get the scene of the crime right!”

The Prime Minister looked confused. “But they did say it was in my office, didn’t they?”

“Well, yes,” the first advisor explained patiently. “But there doesn’t seem to be any need to emphasise that.”

“Anyway, we have the results of an investigation, and it found that there was no elephant in your office,” said the second advisor.

“Great!” said the Prime Minister. “Let’s release that.”

“Yes,” said the second advisor. “That is to say, no. We don’t have it.”

“Can we get it?”

“Quite possibly,” said the first advisor. “And we should most certainly give consideration to the possibility that we might request a copy. Strong, thoughtful consideration. Yes. Though it might be thought that the outcome of the investigation speaks perfectly well for itself, and a copy of the investigation might only muddy the waters.”

“There are nit-pickers out there, and mischievous people determined to take things the wrong way,” agreed the second advisor. “They might go around pointing out that the investigation was carried out by the zookeeper, who might not be perceived as wholly impartial, and who didn’t actually look in your office, and even then, actually concluded that there might be an elephant there.”

“I thought you said the investigation concluded that there was no elephant,” said the Prime Minister.

“Did we?” said the first advisor. “Well let’s not get cute about it. Of course, it’s not absolutely out of the question that there’s an elephant in your office.”

“Okay,” sighed the Prime Minister. “I guess I’d better go and have a look”.

The advisors looked at each other again.

“Oh, we wouldn’t advise that,” they said. “It might call into question the government’s honesty and security.”

Steven Price is a barrister specialising in media law and an adjunct lecturer in media law at Victoria University of Wellington’s law school. He has provided legal advice on several books by Nicky Hager, including 'Hit and Run'.

15

Happy Race Relations Day

by Vaughn Davis

It’s easy to believe that race relations in New Zealand are in a pretty happy place. Especially when you’re white. My own experience is probably typical of that.

Growing up in the Hutt Valley suburbs of Naenae and Alicetown meant mixing with a pretty diverse bunch of people. My best mate at primary school had a Samoan dad and a Palagi mum. The guys two doors down (and fellow model aeroplane fans) were NZ-born to Indian parents. And if Māori never quite made its way into the curriculum, brown faces certainly figured heavily in my school photos from the imaginatively named Hutt Central, Hutt Intermediate and Hutt Valley High School.

Fast forward a few decades. We recently marked Race Relations Day for another year and I’m living in a super-diverse city: no one of our 220 ethnic groups forms an absolute majority in present-day Auckland, and I like that. Our streets are filled with voices, faces, food and fashion our parents might not have seen without traveling overseas. The school across the road offers full immersion learning in English, Te Reo Māori, Samoan and French. It’s pretty easy to feel OK about race in New Zealand.

The other weekend, though, I read a couple of things that jolted me. The first one involved Wellington entrepreneur Deanna Yang. Her Moustache Milk and Cookie business had been featured in an ad for Visa, leading to Deanna being attacked online for having the audacity to look Chinese in New Zealand. Later, she blogged that she had come to accept being called an “Asian cunt” as a normal part of life.

Setting aside the fact she was born in Auckland, her story made me think we have a long way to go on the journey to acceptance, let alone celebration, of our diversity.

Deanna’s story reminded me of another one I’d read recently by Auckland woman Wong Liu Shueng. For her in the 1950s, being called “ching chong Chinaman” was normal, and awful. Then one day, walking home, boys from her school with pockets filled with stones cornered and attacked her. I’d love you to take a moment to read her story.

Two stories from the same city, 50 years apart. In 2017, we mostly attack with Facebook comments rather than stones. The hatred’s the same though. It hasn’t gone away and unless we keep reading stories like Deanna’s and Liu Shueng’s, and acting on hatred when we see it, it’s not going to.

In her blog, Liu Shueng says she hopes her granddaughters will grow up in a kinder New Zealand than she did. I’m not sure they will. And I hope I’m wrong.

Happy Race Relations Day, everyone.