Sunday, 10 May 2009

Revolutionising the News

BOB McCHESNEY is one of those progressive American scholars who repay the closest attention. Interviewed this morning on Radio New Zealand – National, he confidently laid out a series of radical measures that he believes will halt, and hopefully reverse, the precipitate slide in the quality of news gathering and reporting in the US and across the globe.

This is a – and quite possibly the – critical issue confronting the Left in developed western countries. But sadly, in New Zealand left-wing circles, media policy tends to be treated as an afterthought, at best, and at worst, a joke.

Now, I’m not suggesting there are no New Zealanders researching news media issues from a progressive perspective, because there are. Scholars like Peter Thompson, Wayne Hope and Martin Hirst are making an outstanding contribution. The problem is, we hardly ever get to hear from them.

Certainly, they’re much too hot for the ever-cautious Chris Laidlaw to handle. His idea of putting two cutting-edge commentators on the air is to rope-in the venerable Jim Tucker from the Whitireia School of Journalism, and Julie Starr, whose main claim to fame seems to be designing a website for Britain’s deeply conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.

Now I’ve heard enough from Jim Tucker over the years to know that his heart is fundamentally in the right place. In a more open and secure political and economic environment, when people in his position weren’t required to choose their words quite so carefully, I'm pretty sure that he would be a strong supporter of McChesney’s plans to socialise the news media.

Starr, however, is a very different kettle of fish. Having visited her website, and read her little posting on "The Future of Journalism", I have no confidence whatsoever that she even understands the problems McChesney is attempting to address. News is not about something as easy and comfortable and non-threatening as "information" – it’s about giving people access to that most dangerous of all commodities – the truth.

What chance is there that Labour and the Greens will latch-on to McChesney’s ideas? Are they up to the job of formulating a media policy for the 2011 election radical enough to transform our understanding of "press freedom" in the 21st Century? Honestly, I’d have to say the chances are pretty slim. I have yet to hear anyone, from either party, speak out in favour of doing something as basic as lifting the level of state subsidy for TVNZ to match even the OECD average – let alone the levels of support given to public broadcasting in Denmark and Finland.

So, if Labour's spokesperson on media policy, Brendan Burns, were to come out with a suite of reforms based on McChesney’s ideas: free postage for publications with less than 25 percent advertising; a $200 tax write-off for a subscription to a not-for-profit newspaper; massive increases in the level of state support for public broadcasting - I'd be delighted. Unfortunately, I get no sense that the Goff-led Labour Party is ready to sanction such radical changes.

If that is the case, then Labour’s new entrants (especially the brave souls who have just launched the blog Red Alert) should think about these questions:

How are they going to communicate with the tens of thousands of voters who either abstained, or voted against them, in 2008?

What do they think will be left of our public broadcasting service after Jonathan Coleman and his friends at the Sky Network have had their wicked way with the future structure of New Zealand's electronic media?

What hope do they have that a newspaper like The NZ Herald is going to give the Labour Opposition a fair suck of the sav’ when it comes to framing "key" election issues in two years time?

Do Labour – or the Greens – possess the strength of numbers, the economic resources, or even the creative imagination and political courage, to make a successful end-run around the hegemonic edifice of the major media conglomerates?

I think not.

And yet, without that imagination and that courage Labour’s chances of holding National to a single term seem very bleak. And if John Key gets a second mandate – one which includes privatisation, radical deregulation, and dangerously regressive tax reforms – then, by the time 2014 rolls around, it will be too late for Labour - the future of the Left will have become the responsibility of a more authentic group of electoral custodians.

So, here’s a suggestion for all you Labour Party policy mavens. Why not invite Bob McChesney to address the Labour Party conference? Why not get his ideas talked about by voters as serious possibilities. Why not serve notice on Sky, and its dark master, Rupert Murdoch, that any investments they were thinking of making in the New Zealand media industry may turn out to be not quite as secure as they’ve been led to believe?

Labour, if it’s to have the slightest chance of rebuilding its electoral fortunes, has got to get the electorate thinking about new things in a new way. Revolutionising media ownership in this country is just one of the many radical steps the party should be contemplating.

My greatest fear, however, is that without the ideological space afforded by a vibrant, publicly owned, and truly independent news media, getting to those next steps may be impossible.


Joseph said...

Hi Chris

Here's my contribution to the debate. Hope you find something of use here.


Jordan Carter said...

Chris, interesting piece. This idea that public service broadcasting matters - that non-commercial media spaces give room for debates and truth-making that cannot occur without them - was one I was first exposed to at a Labour Party summer school, in a session on Gramsci led by Mike Smith.

I have ever since wondered about the approach Labour has taken on public broadcasting. It is something I raise when I can.

A recent post on it from me:

Why is it, do you think, that the fifth Labour government took the approach it did?


Chris Trotter said...

As I see it Jordan, there are two possible explanations.

The first is that the Parliamentary Labour Party just doesn't understand the cultural and political centrality of the media - seeing it instead as a sort of force of nature, something that simply has to be endured, like the weather. When the sun's shining (i.e. when journalists like you) it's great. When it's raining (i.e. when journalists don't like you) it's stink. But, rain or shine, there's nothing you can do about it.

The second explanation (which I consider to be the more likely) is that they understand perfectly the centrality of the media, but are convinced that they have less to lose by keeping it in the hands of the Right, than by allowing it to fall into the hands of independent and critical thinkers.

This is a variation on the "We'd rather keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side" argument.

You only have to look at what happened to NZ broadcasting in the mid-to-late 70s, after the Kirk-Rowling Government had set it free, to realise what would happen: Critical news and current affairs; genuine and challenging local drama; hard-hitting documentaries that tackle important subjects.

A public broadcasting system like that (augmented never forget by a state-owned mass ciculation weekly, The Listener) not only raises the level of public discourse in its own right, but it also forces all other media to lift their standards to match it.

A Labour Government lacking a genuine commitment to its stated social-democratic objectives would have real reason to fear such a media environment.

My best guess is that there is still too much residual neo-liberalism in the upper-reaches of the PLP for a truly radical media policy to be given the go-ahead.

Hope I'm wrong.

millsy said...

"You only have to look at what happened to NZ broadcasting in the mid-to-late 70s, after the Kirk-Rowling Government had set it free, to realise what would happen: Critical news and current affairs; genuine and challenging local drama; hard-hitting documentaries that tackle important subjects"

The ironic thing is that the minister of broadcasting at that time was none other than a Mr Roger Douglas...


Public Broadcasting in this nation has been on life support since 1988. I wouldnt say dead, but it has been on life support, it has shown a few signs of life especially in the past 6 years, but no real perkiness, and no the two Johns, Coleman and Key are eyeing up the life support machines off switch, while the surgeon tell them that the 'Freeview' is the only thing keeping it alive.

Joseph said...

The Socialist Aotearoa forum on the Revolutionary Ideas of Antonio Gramsci this Thursday will address some if these arguments in depth, if anyone would like to discuss them face to face. More info here-

Anonymous said...

Top post, top discussion, good site Joe.

This is the issue for the left. The structural information monopoly of privately-owned (and advertiser-driven) media explains why people doggedly continue to vote against their own interests.

Not sure public media is the answer. The crucial swing-vote target is by definition averse to depth, and addicted to fast-food politics. Headlines, Fox and talkback provide the salt; smiley photo-ops the comforting fat, "tax-cuts" the sugar du jour.

You're squinting at the answer this very second. The free, convenient seed of of the barons' own destruction now blossoming as Fox, talkback and the sewer blogs desperately jump the shark into objects of ridicule.

Red Alert is a stroke of genius - overtaking the natural party of marketing in a single bound. But don't forget the salt and fat: the Daily Show and Huffington Post are the bar to aim for.

Jordan Carter said...

Chris, if you were right (with your last paragraph), what would your prescription be?

Trevor Mallard said...

And I don't think Chris is right (with his last para) I think there is a real willingness to have a go at new approaches. Red Alert is a sign but there is an openness esp amongst the new generation for much more. i think people are interested in having a go at things that might work.

Anonymous said...

Don't just "have a go" Trev: rip into it with the utmost gusto. Recruit and reward as many clever young (and older - Wlesh, James, campbell et al) comics, writers and film-makers as you can and aim to become something like the Huffington Post. The blogosphere is littered with talent, mix it up it with candid MPs and make a splash.

Last election proved without a shadow of doubt (eg Winnie, EFA, smacking) that you are at the utter mercy of the media - and that they will not hesitate to blatantly sink you. The only option is to by-pass them completely - and this medium offers the perfect opportunity. Make your own headlines and humour, and dare them to ignore it.