Why the public distrust the news media – it’s a matter of suspecting state subsidies have turned their watchdog into a muted mutt

The BFD blog has posted an article in the name of Family First today headed “Public  not happy with govt funding of media”.

And how did Family First find out about the level of public dissatisfaction?

Not from the mainstream media, you can be sure.

No, they learned it from the Taxpayers’ Union, an organisation which has been admirably informative in telling us how much money has been dispensed to which news media for what purpose.  Its tracking of grants paid from the Public Interest Journalism Fund can be found here.

The Taxpayers’ Union, moreover, can tell us what the public thinks about the consequences because it commissioned a poll to find out.

It then reported the troubling results:

“Most New Zealanders believe that government funding for private media companies undermines media independence, reveals a new poll commissioned by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union.

“The scientific poll of 1,000 New Zealanders was carried out by Curia Market Research and found that 59% percent believe the funding undermines media independence, compared to just 21% who believe it doesn’t. Twenty percent were unsure.

“Crucially, the belief that media funding undermines independence is strong among supporters of all major political parties, including Labour and the Greens.”

The poll also asked New Zealanders whether they supported the Public Interest Journalism Fund, which allocates $55 million of government funding to media for “public interest” reporting projects.

“Forty-four percent of New Zealanders oppose the fund, versus just 24% in support. Thirty-two percent were unsure.”

In its report on the results, the Taxpayers’ Union notes that mainstream media outlets have been at pains to deny any suggestion that government funding undermines their independence.

“But they can no longer deny that the funding has undermined the perception of independence.

It’s now clear that the Government’s push to directly fund private media outlets is deeply misguided, if not dangerous. Instead of enlightening New Zealanders with high-quality journalism, the funding risks driving audiences towards fringe information sources that may be perceived as more independent.”

Louis Houlbrooke, the union’s campaign manager, said the polling should be a wake-up call to the media companies themselves.

He argues:

“As tempting as it must be to accept Government handouts, in the long term it may serve to alienate readers who expect journalists to report from a position of independence.”

And:

“On the flipside, this poll suggests there is a real opportunity for media outlets who differentiate themselves by refusing the funding. We’re already seeing smaller outlets such as The NBR, The Platform, and interest.co.nz capitalise on this opportunity by loudly advertising the fact that they are fully privately-funded.”

Houlbrooke says the Taxpayers’ Union shares the public’s concerns that government funding undermines media independence.

He references an explicit goal of the Public Interest Journalism Fund, which  is to promote a ‘partnership’ interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“Whether media outlets admit it or not, taking the money is a direct challenge to editorial independence on highly contentious debates such as co-governance.

 “More broadly, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that media bosses have a multi-million-dollar interest in electing a Government that will protect their funding. The risk that this will influence the way issues are reported, or what issues are reported, is obvious”.

Houlbrooke then threw down a challenge:

“A simple immediate test for media independence will be whether they are willing to report on this poll.”

In a post on his blog headed What the public thinks about the Pravda Project, veteran journalist Karl du Fresne expressed his doubts the challenge would be accepted.

“Don’t hold your breath waiting to see anything about this in the mainstream media.”

That was on May 3.

Several days have passed since then.

In that time the media have shown great interest in the findings of the latest political opinion polls and their portents of the dumping of the Ardern government at the general election next year.

They have good cause to be interested because a new government is bound to take a look at the subsidies that succour them.

Their reports on the results of polling to measure the public’s trust in them are not so easy to find.

But the poll findings have not been buried by journalists who are not being subsidised.

At Breaking Views, Graham Adams has commented:

“Exactly what motivated New Zealand’s mainstream media chiefs to help destroy their most valuable asset — trust in their editorial independence — by accepting a share of $55 million in government cash, with strings attached, remains a mystery given the obvious pitfalls.  \\

“By their own admission, the millions of dollars the big players — such as Stuff and the NZ Herald — have received represent a very small portion of their total revenue. Yet their bosses still thought it was a good idea to put their hands out for a taxpayers’ top-up.

“Just how damaging that decision has been for them was demonstrated by a Curia poll released this week.”

Adams also drew attention to “the truly troublesome conditions” to be found in fund guidelines which instruct news media how to deal with the Treaty of Waitangi.

“And they do, in fact, strongly encourage recipients of money from NZ On Air, which administers the fund, to avoid criticising government policy in that highly disputed area.”

One of the fund’s stated goals is:

“…. actively promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner.”

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.” 

The contentious concept of “partnership” – of course – is the issue at the heart of the constitutional debate raging about the insidious spread of co-governance.

“This has been most obvious recently with regard to Three Waters but in fact co-governance (aka partnership) is being inserted into a broad range of legislation and policy, from the RMA and health to education and scientific research.

“It is also the driving ideology behind the Rotorua council representation debacle that has now limped to a stalemate after the Attorney-General, David Parker, ruled the bill breached the Bill of Rights Act by discriminating against non-Māori.”

Adams has examined a report commissioned by NZ On Air, the Te Tiriti Framework for News Media, which offers detailed advice on how journalists should deal with the Treaty.

Among examples of the “guidance” provided:

  • Māori have never ceded sovereignty to Britain or any other state.
  • …our society has a foundation of institutional racism.
  • For news media, it is not simply a matter of reporting ‘fairly’, but of constructively contributing to te Tiriti relations and social justice.
  • How does the [media] organisation cover the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and efforts to enact it such as He Puapua?… For publicly funded news media, He Puapua recommends ‘increasing the number of Māori governors, te reo and Māori cultural content.’
  • Repeated references by the government to the English version [of the Treaty], in which Māori supposedly ceded sovereignty, have created systematic disinformation that protects the government’s assumption of sole parliamentary sovereignty.

In short, Adams explains, NZ On Air is handing out millions of taxpayers’ money with the strong recommendation that journalists not only accept but promote the view that Māori never ceded sovereignty to the Crown; that Parliament’s “sole sovereignty” is an “assumption”; that New Zealand’s institutions are inherently racist; and that concepts of “fairness” should not get in the way of promoting the prescribed interpretation of the Treaty.

In its article at The BDF today, Family First says:

“In any democracy, the media must be free from government interference and control. The media must remain strictly independent, as one of their primary tasks is to hold the government to account.

“This watchdog role of the Fourth Estate is arguably even more vital right now, because Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government has an outright majority in the New Zealand Parliament.

“So it’s of no surprise that a “huge majority believe media independence has been undermined by government funding.””

It is especially difficult for the media to criticise the Government  on race-based issues related to the Treaty of Waitangi  because of the Public Interest Journalism Fund’s requirements to  “actively promote the principles of partnership, participation and active protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Maori as a Te Tiriti partner.”

2 thoughts on “Why the public distrust the news media – it’s a matter of suspecting state subsidies have turned their watchdog into a muted mutt

  1. I object to paying tax to fund media. The payments, and the conditions attached to them have destroyed any independence media once may have claimed.

    Add in the substantial sum paid for advertising Covid and the fiscal contribution from the taxpayer to media is massive. The Covid nonsense is insultingly dumb, as was Three Waters.

    Take into account the pointless, and also dumb, material from the NZ Transport Agency as an alternative to spending money on mai9ntaining roads, also at prime time, and the media is getting a lot more than the oft quoted $55million.

    Peter Williamson ________________________________

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Those media who accept funding for promoting such an extremist version of the Treaty are clearly lacking in any principles or scruples. So why should the public ever trust them again? To use good Socialist, if slightly dated, language the media have become Labour’s running dogs and lackeys.

    Liked by 3 people

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