John Drinnan 's Opinion

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan: Media freedom under fire

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Culture of cover-up from the judiciary, police and government departments is growing, says current affairs boss

The drama marking the 2015 centenary of Gallipoli is costing about $1 million for each hour of television.
The drama marking the 2015 centenary of Gallipoli is costing about $1 million for each hour of television.

TV3 news and current affairs boss Mark Jennings says the handling of the GCSB Bill is part of a creeping campaign against media freedom that began about four years ago.

"Increasingly media have seen a culture of cover-up rather than opening up from the judiciary, police, government departments and politicians," he says.

Jennings runs 3News, Campbell Live, 3rd Degree, 360, Firstline and oversees the weekend current affairs show The Nation.

He doubts the controversial new surveillance law will directly harm news gathering and media protection of sources.

But the technical complexity of the new surveillance techniques is already changing the way information is being collected among people in the sector, he says.

Spying and intelligence snafus have been in the news regularly since the fiasco of the January 2012 Kim Dotcom raid.

Lately a litany of botch-ups and dramas has included surveillance of journalist Andrea Vance, leading to the current hearing by Parliament's privileges committee into the handling of the inquiry into the leak of a report about the GCSB to Vance.

Meanwhile, the backdrop has been a global scandal over extreme eavesdropping programmes operated by US intelligence body the National Security Agency and GCHQ in Britain. Both have close ties to the GCSB.

Meanwhile, it was recently revealed that an internal Defence Force manual refers to "certain investigative journalists" as "subversion" threats.

The public has had a crash course in how state spying has grown and how New Zealand is aligned with the United States.

Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy is chairman of the Media Freedom Committee - a group of the country's editors who keep a watch on authorities.

The committee is making submissions to the privileges committee hearing.

Murphy believes media freedom is under pressure.

"Internationally, and here, there does seem to be a pushback by the state against personal freedoms and therefore media freedoms," he says.

"Incrementally, by closing access to public information, and politically, by passing laws that do not recognise the public's right to know what is being done in their name.

"In general the whatever-it-takes attitude in the US, UK and here to personal rights and privacy is a real worry for free media.

"These changes aren't necessarily inspired by targeting media, but journalists' inquiries, dealings and sources can get caught up in the electronic drift nets," he says.

"And, of course, [journalists] can be specifically targeted if a Prime Minister or spy boss is of a mind to do so.

"Just look at the UK detention of Glenn Greenwald's partner under terrorism laws."

The next issue is over the Telecommunications Interception Capability Bill, which means telcos have to ensure state surveillance organisations have backdoor entry to their networks.

The move has been heavily criticised by civil liberties campaigners.

A well-placed industry insider says that telco executives are privately furious, but don't want to criticise the Government and undermine their chances of getting government contracts.

Murphy says: "People need to know that the telecoms companies have been co-operating with spy agencies and the police, etc, for years. The debate has probably brought that clearly to the surface."

Crouching tiger

I've been whining before about the stagecraft for the TV3 current affairs show 3rd Degree, and like a grumpy schoolmaster tut-tutted presenter Guyon Espiner for "slouching" in the studio slots with Duncan Garner.

A TV expert - who insisted on anonymity - took a look for me and found both men leaned forward but he felt it was not their fault.

"For some reason, the camera is quite low - about waist height. They've probably done this to ensure balance between the presenters and the large screen behind them," he says.

"But if you have a low camera, there's only one place to look. And that's down."

The item on Susan Burdett worked well. In my opinion a few foibles in the delivery are a shame considering the content is all local and mostly good. The programme is delivering results, but still has to fight for renewal.

Million an hour

Taxpayers are shelling out a new record for a television drama to mark the 2015 centenary of Gallipoli.

The six-parter When We Go to War is the centrepiece for NZ On Air-supported coverage. It is contributing $5.92 million for six hour-long episodes, or nearly $1 million per hour of TV.

The drama is produced by Robin Scholes, who also produced Once Were Warriors and Mr Pip, is written by Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan, and directed by Peter Burger.

According to NZ On Air When We Go to War is a mini-series that will chronicle both the front line and life back home in New Zealand during the tumultuous early 20th century.

NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson says the size of the budget is partly because of the cost of making period drama, but is also due to the truncated six-part series.

The typical cost per episode of serious drama is around $600,000 per episode of a 13-part series, though previous one-off dramas for NZ On Air's Platinum Fund had cost more than $1 million an hour.

The series length is an interesting issue. You can get more drama hours per dollar with big series because the costs are amortised, and if a long series takes off - like Outrageous Fortune - it can provide networks with secure sources of ad revenue.

Longer series give time for dramas to build an audience. The counter argument is that it is too much to expect viewers to commit to 13-part stories.

Mini-series - which are more common in Britain than in the US - are more easily consumed.

New role

Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns has been assigned to a new role at APN to develop closer relationships between New Zealand editorial operations, advertising and marketing.

He leaves the HoS next week, ending three years as editor, with seven years before that as editor of the Waikato Times.

Murphy is looking at a replacement to edit the HoS.

Johns' new role of editor for content partnerships has been created amidst challenging times for the newspaper industry in securing advertising revenue.

APN News & Media chief executive Martin Simons says the appointment reflects the changing expectations of media organisations, with businesses looking beyond traditional ways to engage with their audience.

Murphy says the integrity of the editorial product will not be diminished by the new initiative.

Charity case

The Parliamentary Press Gallery has accepted an offer from Linda Clark and a Chapman Tripp partner to help them make submissions to privileges committee hearings. The two Chapman Tripp lawyers are working pro bono - or free.

Many years ago Clark was a chair of the Press Gallery and is highly regarded among journalists in the capital who appear to welcome the freebie.

She is a well-known face around Parliament, and on TV where she is mediator on 3rd Degree.

In my opinion it is a disappointment and an indication that the gallery lives in a Wellington bubble.

While taking such an important stance on the independence of journalism this national institution has defined itself as a charity case.

Why, I wondered, didn't the gallery pay its own way.

Or if it did not have enough money, seek extra support from its corporate owners?

TV3 head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings says it would have been preferable for it to pay its own way, but he had not known about the pro bono arrangement.

"Nobody contacted me."

Gallery chair Claire Trevett and TV3 political editor Patrick Gower did not see any issue in the pro bono support from Chapman Tripp lawyers.

I tweeted my concern but was rebuked for being sexist andsilly.

Clark - who assists with clients dealing with Parliament - cannot be criticised for her offer and no doubt it would be good advice.

But it seems a strange way to take the high ground ensuring journalists should be independent while providing a brilliant public relations opportunity for Chapman Tripp.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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