It's not widely known that the late Sir Douglas Myers was deeply passionate about the state of the New Zealand news media.

So much so, that at one stage he commissioned a report via the NZ Business Roundtable - which he then chaired - into what steps could be taken to mould the New Zealand Herald into what he considered could become a world-class, opinion-leading newspaper.

This was back at the turn of the century, when Sir Anthony O'Reilly's Independent News and Media (INM) owned Wilson and Horton, a predecessor of what is today NZME - publisher of the Herald and owner of The Radio Network, Grabone and a string of regional papers.

Typically - because Sir Douglas was an activist at heart - some of that passion was motivated by a deep-seated concern that New Zealand should stay on the right economic track and not reverse the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.


But it was also informed by a deep sense of love for New Zealand and a love of good newspapers, which Sir Anthony also shared. Unfortunately, the Irish (then) billionaire unwound an earlier strategy to push hard into the digital era - which would have put INM's various companies at the forefront of e-commerce and digital publishing - to again concentrate on INM's newspaper assets.

That was a strategic mistake of epic proportions.

And combined with the significant debt INM took on to fund its global media empire plans, it ultimately led to Sir Anthony losing not just the leadership of the company, but also his fortune.

The Myers report was kept confidential. It was not circulated to business journalists. But it is reliably understood to have caused mild conniptions when word got out that the business sector had been consulted during the process.

Various New Zealand businesspeople, such as Sir Owen Glenn, later looked at making a bid for key NZ media assets. Horton Media's Matthew Horton is also on record as potentially being interested in some NZ assets, if they come onto the market in the wake of this week's Commerce Commission decision to pan the application for the proposed NZME-Fairfax NZ merger.

The point of this exercise in recent history is to underline that news media ownership is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunes can be won or lost. That is a point Sir Douglas made in recent years when asked why he did not simply make a bid for the NZ company he had once been so emotionally invested in - particularly as it could have been acquired from its Australian parent for much less than Sir Anthony paid.

In effect, he had already rearranged his financial affairs away from New Zealand and moved on to London.

But having owners with strong connections to their assets has traditionally been the nature of news media ownership.


In June 2016, Forbes wrote that 15 billionaires owned the bulk of the news media in the United States.

Among the billionaires were the obvious: Rupert Murdoch, who has control of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and Michael Bloomberg, with Bloomberg (a news and data company).

But the list also included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who initially bought publications as a sideline, but with his acquisition of the Washington Post has injected vital technological knowhow and analytical capability.

Among other billionaires were the Newhouses, who own major magazines like Wired and Vanity Fair, the Cox family, John Henry, Sheldon Adelson, Joe Mansueto, Mort Zuckerman, the Barbey family, Stanley Hubbard, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Carlos Slim Helu and Warren Buffett.

Then there was Peter Thiel - recently at the centre of controversy about how he effectively bought his NZ citizenship - who funded Hulk Hogan's libel suit against Gawker, which took down the website.

In New Zealand, Sir Julian Smith of Allied Press is probably the most significant business owner of media assets.

In commentary on the proposed NZME-Fairfax NZ merger, much has has been made of the fact that financial institutions hold the ownership of both NZME and also Fairfax NZ's Australian parent. And that this distributed ownership would offset any concerns about undue influence if the merger did proceed.

However, assuming any appeal to the High Court was successful, Fairfax Media would be in the strategic box seat on major decisions affecting shareholder value, through the 41 per cent stake it would then hold in the NZ listed company. It is unclear whether that outcome will occur, or whether NZME and Fairfax NZ will pursue their separate objectives.

The commission has now turned down two merger applications: NZME/Fairfax NZ and Sky/Vodafone.

It has placed plurality issues above financial considerations.

The commission's ambit does not cover foreign ownership of news media, which could be the case if private equity players now swoop in. But that should not stop a full debate on what form of media ownership is suitable in our small democracy.

Remarkably, our politicians have been loath to express their own opinions.

But having a vigorous healthy New Zealand-owned media - with a strong focus on innovation and growth - is an aim worth striving for.