New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has thrown his support behind a merger of media companies NZME and Stuff, saying the deal "is in the greater public interest and the national interest".
Peters, who has a famously combative relationship with the media, made a speech in the Beehive that both championed the work of New Zealand reporters while also lamenting the state of the "fourth estate" in the digital age - which he said was in "dire straits".
"It is not an exaggeration to question the viability of the fourth estate function. There are genuine questions about the currency of our journalism."
He expressed particular concern for regional news, claiming a local paper was in some cases as important to an area as a hospital.
The speech, made with senior NZME executives looking on, was a signal to Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi that NZ First is likely to support the Crown taking a "Kiwi Share" in a proposed merged entity.
While the exact details have not been determined, NZME's executives have put a proposal to the Government that would offer assurances - dubbed a Kiwi Share - that if it was allowed to purchase Stuff, it would operate it as a separate entity.
The undertakings are expected to include specific assurances about maintaining editorial numbers and keeping certain newspapers operating, at least for an agreed period of several years.
NZME is the publisher of the New Zealand Herald, while Stuff, owned by Australia's Nine Entertainment, publishes a number of newspapers including The Dominion Post and the Stuff website.
"Part of our commitment here is to say that we will continue to run the Stuff business and we will continue to keep journalists and mastheads open, in competition with NZME and The New Zealand Herald specifically," NZME chief executive Michael Boggs said.
Details of the commitment have not yet been finalised.
Faafoi told reporters he was pleased that Peters had made a definitive statement about where he stood on the issue, but suggested the NZ First leader may have seen more about NZME's proposals than he had.
Talks had been under way for some time until news of the proposal was reported in the media in November and then "went cold" several weeks ago, Faafoi said.
If he saw a new proposal he would consider it carefully.
Some of Peters' statements suggested NZME had offered reassurances around "what we'd like to see" Faafoi said, including commitments around editorial jobs, in particular local jobs.
Asked if he agreed with the tone of Peters' statements, Faafoi said the Government was concerned about the impact international media platforms were having on the revenue streams of local media companies.
"The challenges that the media faces are probably more complex now than when the Commerce Commission considered [the proposed merger] last time."
In 2017, the Commerce Commission rejected the proposed merger, warning it would lead to a loss of competition and a potential reduction in media plurality.
While the Government could pass legislation to allow the merger, or issue a statement on where it wanted the Commerce Commission to focus, Faafoi said it will not go that far.
Instead it is believed NZME would use the Kiwi Share proposal as a means of trying to convince the Commerce Commission that the companies could meet its concerns.
"If we were going to do anything, we'd only say that we're comfortable with a proposal to go to the Commerce Commission," Faafoi said.
Cabinet is expected to consider the matter, and the future of public broadcast media, on Monday. Faafoi then may be given Cabinet's blessing to negotiate details of the Kiwi Share proposal.