Exclusive Interview with Gareth Hughes on the Green Party’s Public Journalism Fund Proposal

Claudia Russell discusses solutions with Gareth Hughes and explores the Green Party’s latest proposal.

Journalism in New Zealand is becoming an industry marked by desperation. News headlines are growing increasingly trivial, and ‘fake news’ has become the phrase of the year. In a changing industry increasingly dominated by global giants such as Google and Facebook, our media organizations are struggling to survive. New Zealand’s two biggest media organizations, Fairfax and NZME, have recently lost a year-long battle to merge. The commerce commission declined the merger on predicted loss of ‘media diversity’ which could threaten democracy. However there are few alternatives, as an estimated 800 journalists could lose their jobs if the companies do not find a solution to their financial woes[1]. Excellent journalism does exist in New Zealand, but good stories will become increasingly sparse if they are not profitable. In response to this potential crisis, Green Party MP Gareth Hughes has proposed an annual $3 million public interest journalism fund and a funding boost to Radio New Zealand (RNZ), who had funding frozen in 2008. In conversation with Gareth, I ask him some questions about the need for this funding and the strong relationship journalism has with democracy.

When asked what he thinks the state of journalism is in New Zealand, he responds; “I mean, I just came back from a conference called ‘Journalism Still Matters,’ if that tells you anything.” Hughes is just one of the voices in a rising campaign to save journalism in New Zealand. Others include the Coalition for Better Broadcasting and the People’s Commission on Public Broadcasting and Media. The rise of social media has had an impact on journalists worldwide, however it has impacted the quality of our content especially because such a large proportion of our media is privately owned. The New Zealand Government spends less per capita than almost any other OECD country does on public broadcasting.[2] Our government’s neo-liberal approach to media allows in-depth and high-quality journalism to flourish when the industry is doing well financially[3]. But when the industry is in global decline, the effect is quite the opposite. Our main media organizations are privately-owned businesses, and as such they must operate to generate profit. Hughes states that in a time of massive technological disruption, the media is dominated by advertising and a need to earn revenue through clicks, as well as the prioritization of success on social media platforms[4].

The proposal – a quick overview

The Green Party’s proposal includes an annual $3 million to fund one-off public interest journalism projects. It also aims to restore RNZ to inflation-adjusted funding levels, as their funds were frozen in 2008[5]. The $3 million would not be directed by government itself, and politicians would not be involved in the process. Instead, it would be granted by a rotating panel of expert journalists as part of Creative New Zealand to ensure diverse voices. Funding would be available for a range of platforms such as print, web, podcast and video[6].

When asked what area he would like to see reported on more, Hughes warns that “it definitely shouldn’t be politicians saying what deserves funding. There’s a reason why an independent panel of journalists and academics – the writer’s own peers – should make those decisions.” The essence of this is that although the grant is government-funded, it is not government-controlled. These funds would not exist to forward any government agenda, rather they would promote the independent voices of citizens.

Quality journalism means a quality democracy

What the Green’s party’s proposal reflects is a belief that quality journalism is integral to democracy. The Coalition for Better Broadcasting has similarly expressed a view that the media has an essential role in the scrutiny of government[7]. Indeed, public opinion is considered by legal experts to be the primary check on parliamentary power[8]. Citizens in a democracy should be able to decide whether or not they want their government to be re-elected. However, if avenues do not exist for making the conduct of parliament open and accessible, their ability to make these decisions are limited. A democracy requires citizens who are informed about their government, and citizens rely on the news media for much of this information[9]. Gareth Hughes explains that government-funded journalism can provide us with stories of national importance in areas where privately funded models simply can’t deliver[10]. In a media vastly dominated by overseas content, funding journalism such as RNZ will ensure that New Zealand stories are actually being told[11]. It also gives an opportunity for specialist reporters to dig deeper into New Zealand issues in their area of expertise. “Often report journalists are required to be jacks-of-all-trades, not only covering a broad range of stories but also having to edit, sub edit, produce video content and social media content as well,” Hughes explains. “Having the ability to hire someone with in-depth knowledge of an area, say science or local government, is important and not common under the commercial model.[12]

Are there any existing protections for public interest journalism?

While there are no public funds solely for journalism, we can reason by analogy using our existing broadcasting laws to further understand the importance of funded media. One might be inclined to imagine what a country with entirely privatised media might look like. The existing legislative protections for media in New Zealand indicate, to me, that local content would find it incredibly difficult to survive in a completely unregulated market. A prime example of this is New Zealand On Air, which was instated by part 4 of the Broadcasting Act 1989[13]. The organization uses funding from a range of streams and is guided by legislative provisions aimed at promoting New Zealand content. Section 36 of the act sets out these primary functions as ensuring that a range of broadcasts exist to promote the interests of “women, youth, children, persons with disabilities, and minorities in the community including ethnic minorities.” Also; “to promote programmes about New Zealand and New Zealand interests”. Children’s programming in New Zealand is almost entirely dependent on public investment directed by the commission.[14] In fact, 76% of the first-run local children’s programming broadcast on free-to-air television is supported by NZ On Air[15].

The Broadcasting Act also provides protections for funding of Maori media under Te Reo Whakapuaki Irirangi (the Maori Broadcast Funding Agency). Some speculate that without this legislation there is a risk that no Maori programming would exist at all[16]. The same has been said about local programmes aimed at children[17]. Without targeted funding, these less profitable areas of the media could cease to exist.

International provisions and funding for journalists

I ask Gareth if there are any international models we could learn from, and he tells me that every country is different. The United States believes fiercely in ‘freedom of press’ from state involvement, and thus relies on a philanthropy model[18]. “That works in a country of 300 million or so,” says Hughes, “but in a country of only 4 million that’s incredibly difficult.” Journalism in France is substantially different, with a large portion of the media state funded. The French Government even owns the national newspaper, which Hughes “wouldn’t necessarily encourage or propose in New Zealand.” Some European countries have offered state subsidies to private press in order to promote diverse voices, a model which has been suggested for New Zealand[19]. There is a need to strike a fine balance between state and privatized media. There are risks to democracy when either one is dominant. What is clear is that funding for journalists must be available in some form in order to ensure that local stories are told. The Green’s policy is unique in that it proposes a fund specifically for journalists, something which Hughes suggests could be “pioneering[20].”

Will it be taxpayer money well spent?

As is the case with any bill proposing to spend public funds, there is some concern that journalists are not deemed ‘worthy’ enough to receive government funding[21]. In 2015 public trust in journalists was lower than for any other profession, including politicians and lawyers[22]. Such low levels of public trusts in journalists could lead to a national rejection of the proposal. But Gareth Hughes is not phased. “We wouldn’t scrap democracy just because the public have a poor perception of politicians,” he says. “What I’d like to see is New Zealand journalism getting on a positive feedback loop, much like I’d like to see our politicians getting on a positive feedback loop.” In order to have positive feedback to begin with, we need solutions that allow citizens to see on a large scale what good journalism looks like[23]. There is no doubt that a high calibre of journalism does exist in this country. However, when financial pressure forces people to work under stressful conditions, the most important stories may never see the light of day.

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

[1] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[2] Gareth Hughes “Public Journalism Fund.” Greens.org (31st March 2017). https://www.greens.org.nz/sites/default/files/policy-pdfs/Public%20Journalism%20Paper%20-%20updated.pdf

[3]Avril Bell. “An endangered species’: Local programming in the New Zealand television market.” Media, Culture & Society 17, no. 2 (1995): 184.

[4] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[5] Gareth Hughes “Public Journalism Fund.” Greens.org (31st March 2017). https://www.greens.org.nz/sites/default/files/policy-pdfs/Public%20Journalism%20Paper%20-%20updated.pdf

[6] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[7] Kay Ellmers. The Panellist’s Views. Make our Media Better, 2017. http://www.makeourmediabetter.org.nz/panelsviews.html

[8] The Laws Of New Zealand – 77 parliamentary supremacy

[9] John C Merril. “Journalism and democracy.” Changing the news: The forces shaping journalism in uncertain times (2011): 46.

[10] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[13] Broadcasting Act 1989, s36.

[14]“Providing innovation, creativity and diversity on television.” NZ on Air http://www.nzonair.govt.nz/television/what-we-fund.

[15] Ibid

[16] Avril Bell. “An endangered species’: Local programming in the New Zealand television market.” Media, Culture & Society 17, no. 2 (1995): 188.

[17] Ibid, 184.

[18]Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[19] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, and David AL Levy. “The changing business of journalism and its implications for democracy.” The changing business of journalism and its implications for democracy (2010): 5.

[20] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).

[21] Simon Maude, ‘Claims distrustful voters won’t buy public interest journalism plan,’ Stuff (March 31st 2017). lhttp://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/91065438/claim-distrustful-voters-wont-buy-public-interest-journalism-plan

[22] Research New Zealand, ‘Trust and Confidence in Members of Parliament compared with local councillors, lawyers, journalists and others such as those working in the Ambulance Service, the Fire Service and the Police’ (4 June 2015)http://www.researchnz.com/pdf/Media%20Releases/Research%20New%20Zealand%20Media%20Release%20-%2004-06-15%20-%20Trust%20and%20Confidence.pdf

[23] Interview with Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP (Claudia Russell, Equal Justice Project, 21 April 2017).