OPINION

Journalism is vital to a functioning democracy. It is time to act to ensure the industry can thrive - and continue to hold elites like Winston Peters to account, writes media academic Mel Bunce.

When MediaWorks announced plans to sell off its TV arm, it sent shockwaves around New Zealand's media industry. Without a buyer, hundreds of jobs and many programmes are at risk.

The announcement should also make us sit up and pay attention. It shows us that a small group of financial executives in a boardroom 10,000 kilometres away have the power – with just one decision – to fundamentally alter the media landscape of our country.

This is not just a story about one troubled news outlet. It is a stark wakeup call about the state of the media system.

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Our system is vulnerable because we rely on a small number of media companies for our news, and their financial models are under pressure as advertising and attention moves online.

And by international standards, we have little publicly funded media to protect us from these shocks. Australia has historically spent around three times as much per person, and the UK more than six times as much.

In fact, there is only one developed country that routinely places below us for media spending: The United States. This should be another major wakeup call. With so much of its journalism left to market forces (and that market now failing) the US has developed large news deserts – whole areas where there is no original, local news at all.

In those deserts, citizens are less informed, voter turnout is lower at elections, and there is greater political polarisation. Without scrutiny from journalists, business and politicians become less efficient and more likely to abuse their power. One study has even shown that, as local newspapers close down, oil and gas plants start to pollute more.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters at a post-Cabinet press conference at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Marty Melville
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters at a post-Cabinet press conference at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Marty Melville

Even more fundamentally, without credible journalism, people become less sure about who they can trust. Partisan news outlets in the US have been pushing the envelope of truth in an attempt to grab viewers – and they are taking their audiences along for the ride. Remarkable portions of the population now believe insane conspiracy theories about their elected officials. How can citizens cast meaningful votes when they don't know who to believe?

So how do we move forward in New Zealand? How can we make our media system more resilient? And ensure that journalists have the time and resources they need to do their job?

The most obvious and important step is to spend more on public media – to pull ourselves up from the bottom of the league tables.

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And the very first priority for this spending is a well-funded, fully multimedia, public broadcaster. Not one like TVNZ that is operated on commercial principles.

Think of this as the immune system for our body politic. It means that, however bad things get, we have a safety net.

In Australia, the ABC provides TV, radio and online journalism across the nation. The CBC does this in Canada, RTE in Ireland and, of course, the BBC in the United Kingdom (not to mention the overachieving Scandinavians ...).

These outlets have critics. But they are, every one of them, the most trusted source of news in their respective countries – and that includes voters from across the political spectrum. It is remarkable, and anomalous, that we do not have one in New Zealand.

There are multiple pathways to building a state broadcaster. One option would be to expand RNZ into a full multimedia organisation (as was previously proposed by Labour). Another option is an RNZ and TVNZ merger.

This specific decision should be in the hands of independent experts with access to the latest, granular business reports. It depends on questions of symbiosis and duplication among staffing, equipment, buildings, managers, programming and workplace culture.

A newly merged, state-funded broadcaster could also include Māori Television. But it would be absolutely crucial, if that happened, to safeguard Māori Television's unique and specific mandate (and funding) to support Māori language and culture.

The TV3 studio headquarters in Eden Terrace, Auckland. The property is being sold with a leaseback to MediaWorks for three years. Photo / Supplied
The TV3 studio headquarters in Eden Terrace, Auckland. The property is being sold with a leaseback to MediaWorks for three years. Photo / Supplied

No country should be reliant on one source of news and information alone. In addition to a public broadcaster, there are a range of interventions that can support media plurality.

The government can "nudge" audiences to support journalism, for example. The Canadian government recently announced a five-year, CA$595 million package that includes tax rebates for citizens who pay for news subscriptions. It also gives tax credits for news outlets that produce public interest news. Both of these are elegant, indirect ways to support journalism.

We can also build up NZ on Air's contestable funds for journalism projects, and target this where it is most needed. Local and regional news deserves particular attention because the newspapers that traditionally served these communities are struggling to survive. Unless something drastic changes, many more will close.

If we are lucky, journalists and community groups will start experimenting with alternative methods of collecting and publishing news in their place. But we need to think hard about how we can best support this work – that might include seed grants, training funds, and equipment. Or increasing the funding for local democracy reporters based in outlets around the country.

These interventions come at a cost. But the alternative is increasingly unthinkable. While Winston Peters may joke that we are better off without TV3 journalism he is categorically, fundamentally on the wrong side of the evidence.

Researchers have shown, over and again, that journalism plays a fundamental role in a healthy democracy. It brings us the information we need to vote; it holds elites like Peters to account; it creates a space for citizens to push for action on important issues.

We know how vital journalism is to a functioning democracy. It is time to act.

Mel Bunce is a Reader in Journalism at City, University of London and author of The Broken Estate: Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth World recently published by Bridget Williams Books.