A recent RNZ report on the media and the nature of coverage of complex events shared the views of Paul Brislen, a former journalist who now works in PR for the tech sector, on the role of media in relation to the business world.
He is quoted as stating, "It's not about cheerleading, it's not about advertising. It's not about promoting you or your products. It's about holding power to account ... Blaming journalists really misses the point of what journalists do, and why it's important."
It should go without saying that I support the work of the New Zealand media; after all, I am a regular contributor to the mainstream platform on which you are reading this column. However, amid the hostility that has been directed at reporters and outlets by some of the world's most public figures (such as the previous United States president) and the confluence of traditional and social media, I believe the collective idea of what "the media" is, and the purpose it serves, has become confused.
In my view there are three main problems. One is that our expectations of the trained reporters, editors and managers of mainstream media – print, online and broadcast – are increasingly unreasonable. The job of the fourth estate is exactly what Brislen said, to hold power to account, whether it is quizzing the CEO of a listed company over product or performance or showing up to a post-Cabinet press conference or 1pm briefing and, for example, asking the Prime Minister exactly why her account of the Government's rapid antigen test (RAT) order process differs from that of the big pharma company and RAT producer Roche.
The job of the fourth estate is not to take a position and tell anyone what to believe; it is to ask questions and report the answers, and investigate as far as possible and report evidence that may show whether those answers are truthful and comprehensive.
In other words, journalists are not endowed with special powers of insight by dint of their profession – though some may be uncommonly perceptive – and they should not be expected to take either a particularly antagonistic or obsequious stance in order to be seen to be doing their job well.
If their questions fail to elicit meaningful answers, that is not their fault – and the non-answers, as reported, can be revealing in themselves. It is our job as the public to make up our own minds about those in power – business, politics or otherwise – if we see the powerful dodging questions, assigning blame to others, issuing repeated denials, or giving a prepared or canned answer to a question that was not asked.
The second problem is the conflation of the role of traditional media with the rise of social media, and how the latter may enable those in power to sidestep reporters, confuse debates and baffle the public or consumers to whom they should consider themselves accountable.
On one hand, it is useful for people in power to have a disintermediated way to speak to their audiences; those who find the cut-and-thrust of Question Time or press conferences combative or tiresome can go to the Prime Minister's social pages to watch her casually filmed, minutes-long unedited videos explaining major Government announcements.
Here it is important to consider the Prime Minister's now-infamous line about the Government being the "only source of truth" regarding Covid information. It is not clear whether she meant Government-related reporting in mainstream media or her own videos on social media, but with the very meaning of "truth" now up for debate, and with non-Government scientists, academics, community leaders and others making important contributions to our understanding of Covid itself and of the effects of the pandemic – as should happen in a healthy democracy – it is clear that the media fortunately does not apply a Government-only filter to Covid reporting. Again, it is about power and accountability.
On the other hand, social media platforms are controlled by their users, meaning people in power can present themselves and their organisations precisely as they wish, and engage with audiences only to the degree they wish. They can block other users, delete comments, or switch off comments altogether.
I have no information about how each MP and their staff manage social media feedback, but we must remember that these pages are essentially self-branding exercises, allowing a degree of control of presentation of the subject and their voice that the mainstream media does not. It is not reportage and there is no fact-checking. The public must remember that, and apply their own critical analysis to what is being presented.
The third issue is the in-process merger of RNZ and TVNZ, which in my view is not a problem if handled correctly. In some ways this should be recognised as the amalgamation of two state-owned media entities which are subject to the same perceived bias because of their mutual reliance on Government funding (though TVNZ does attract advertising revenue).
What I would recommend for the structuring of the merger is to put both on the same playing field and create a proper distinction between state-owned, publicly funded media and privately owned, commercial media. That is, remove the ability of TVNZ to receive revenue from advertising and leave the truly commercial entities to get their pick of advertisers and therefore more funding from that model, without having to compete with a large state-owned entity that currently has a foot in both camps.
Then, follow Australia's lead of requiring Big Tech companies to pay for content they syndicate or otherwise share on their platforms. If commercial media entitles are empowered by new legislation to charge for any of their content that is used by Google (Alphabet), Facebook (Meta) and others, this becomes a key revenue stream to support privately owned and / independent media, and the tax revenues Government should be receiving from Big Tech can go to publicly funded media.
Ultimately, what we want is a structure where mainstream news media is stably and properly funded to support the work of journalists, editors, producers and the other key roles of the fourth estate. A strong media sector supports a strong democracy. This model can get us there.
• Andrew Barnes is a businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of Perpetual Guardian.