Fairfax Media's decision to ship up to eight million historic New Zealand news photographs and negatives to Little Rock, Arkansas, for "digitising" has proved perilous. Two years on, the digital archiving is yet to be completed, an unknown number of the photographs have turned up on eBay.com for sale and Rogers Photo Archive (RPA), the company involved, is now in receivership facing at least 10 lawsuits totalling more than $94 million.

Fairfax Media has gone to court to recover the archives - which also include the photographic records of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and other Australian publications. Observing from the sidelines is the Ministry of Culture and Heritage which allowed the export of this taonga, even though, under the Protected Objects Act, it had the power to refuse the export of photos more than 50 years old.

In documents filed in the Circuit Court, Arkansas on December 19, Fairfax argues that from the time the agreement was signed in May 2013, "there were numerous issues raising concern for Fairfax that RPA could not or would not perform". Under the deal, Fairfax agreed to sell the photographs and negatives to RPA for no charge, and in return RPA would provide separate digital libraries for both Australia and New Zealand.

After the Herald revealed Fairfax's plans in May 2013, the ministry intervened and RPA and Fairfax agreed that no item created prior to 1973 could be sold or disposed of without the ministry's approval. However, it issued "a temporary export certificate" for the whole archive saying it would check for "protected objects" once the collection was digitised.


After months of "concern" for Fairfax, including RPA being raided by the FBI in January 2014 as part of an ongoing probe into fraud in sports memorabilia trading - another of Rogers' interests - the media company wrote to RPA in late November, terminating the contract - and demanding the return of the archives before December 4. Instead, Fairfax told the court, the New Zealand archive had been transferred to another organisation in Newport, Arkansas.

Fairfax spokeswoman Emma Carter says the archive is now "in the possession of the court-appointed receiver" and that "work continues to digitise the archive". She says "the majority of New Zealand images have already been scanned".

Also, the court has ordered no further Fairfax images be sold or transferred, and she says Fairfax is "exploring our recovery options" for those already sold.

Two years ago, when the Herald first revealed Fairfax's plans to ship the photographic archives of 72 New Zealand publications overseas, I expressed my disquiet about exporting such a huge part of our cultural heritage. The disquiet has turned into a scary nightmare. This massive pictorial heritage stretching back into the 1800s and illustrating the lives of 72 New Zealand cities and towns, is now in the hands of a receiver, while a horde of creditors clamour for any penny they can claw back. We can only pray that Fairfax's claim to ongoing ownership holds up in court.

Defending the deal in May 2013, then Fairfax group executive editor Paul Thompson argued it was the only way to rescue newspaper archives suffering from years of neglect and decay. He said it would have cost $2 to $4 an image to have them digitised in New Zealand, which added up to a possible bill of $32 million. "It was just prohibitive," he told the Marlborough Express - one of the papers whose historic photos are now trapped in Arkansas.

At the time, Mr Thompson said it wasn't the original image or "artefact" that was as important as the usability and accessibility of an image. "The real benefit is being able to search and find and retrieve and use them. It's no good having millions of photographs that are impossible to access, poorly stored and scattered to the four winds." Or in Arkansas.

The ministry says it is "in regular communications with Fairfax" and that "we expect Fairfax New Zealand to take all steps to resolve this matter in a way that recognises the obligations of their agreement with the ministry and under the act".

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