In 1896, the newly imprinted New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs declared his intentions for his new venture, with a somewhat modestly titled ‘Business Announcement’ that appeared on page 4 of his newspaper.
“It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved …”
‘Without fear or favour’ has since then resonated as a catch-cry in newsrooms. It is a fundamental principle upon which journalism – and by extension, democracy – prospers.
The New Zealand Herald’s own code of ethics states: “We will be independent and impartial and not bow to improper internal or external influences.
“Our editorial team guards its independence zealously – it is a critical component in ensuring high-quality, trusted journalism and the foundation for our editorial and business success. Our editors make independent editorial decisions which are based upon one absolute – the truth and our duty to our audience and communities. We are not swayed by any parties.”
This week, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and various bad actors on the media fringes have sought to undermine that independence with comments about the New Zealand news media being “bribed” by the NZ on Air Public Interest Journalism Fund, set up under the previous Labour Government.
The fund – an extra $55 million for NZ on Air to distribute – was designed to help media companies keep journalists employed in the post-Covid era, as traditional advertising revenues were disrupted.
Critics have accused the previous Labour Government of using the fund to help buy favourable coverage for its policies because of perceived requirements in the funding agreements.
The fund did no such thing. It operated strictly independently of politicians and there was no direct funding of political coverage.
Applicants to the fund were asked that, when appropriate in producing funded content, to support NZ identity and public interest requirements, including support for the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Nothing in that line is to be feared. Almost every major corporate in New Zealand acknowledges the principles of the Treaty. For media, that does not impact coverage, one way or another, of news events or issues.
Agreements included clauses around maintaining editorial independence. For instance, NZ Herald publisher NZME – which received funding for a new team of court reporters, a cadet journalism programme and one-off roles – had a clause specifically included in its own agreements with NZ on Air: “We acknowledge the importance of your editorial discretion as a media entity and confirm nothing in this Agreement will limit or in any way impede or influence the ability of your news reporting functions to report and comment on news stories and current events, including those involving us, as you see fit.”
People - depending on their own worldview - often quote as evidence of bias specific pieces of journalism with which they don’t agree. They rarely make the same claim when an item finds their approval. It’s perhaps worth noting the NZ Herald was rated the most politically balanced of New Zealand’s media outlets in a Curia poll earlier this year.
Moreover and in reality, that $55 million was a drop in the bucket for the media industry. A low, single-digit percentage of annual revenue. Single advertisers give tens of millions of dollars to media companies each year, yet there has never been a concerted campaign claiming that they are buying favour.
RNZ and TVNZ are government-owned – and RNZ has been funded entirely by the public for almost 100 years – yet there is strict legislation in place that enshrines their own independence.
It has only been since Covid, and the rise (or resurrection - call it what you will) of divisive political playmakers like Peters who have sought to play on fear and ignorance.
That’s not to say there were not issues with the fund.
The $55 million should have simply been added to NZ on Air’s general coffers – its Factual fund – and distributed to media for projects, as has occurred with little to no controversy for decades. It should not have been ringfenced as a special journalism fund.
And the media industry itself has done a poor job in explaining how the fund operated and is now fighting a rearguard action against enshrined views.
Even Mike Hosking, hardly a flag-waver for left-wing politics, was called an “idiot” by one of his Newstalk ZB listeners this week when he laid out the facts on the fund.
Peters’ performance this week leaves much to be desired. His comments in the Beehive Banquet Hall last Friday and at the opening Cabinet meeting on Tuesday were unbecoming.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon – who has been so quick to tell the electorate that he will be holding the public service accountable for its performance and outcomes – has an early challenge on his hands with the second most senior public servant in the country.
A bigger issue for Peters is his political legacy in his twilight years.
Rather than being the force for positive change that this country so desperately needs, he risks the worst label of all: irrelevancy.