The Media Agenda in New Zealand

From Class Struggle 51 July-August 2003
Panics and Profits

Reading the news or watching it on TV one might well wonder how we manage to carry on with our daily lives without being in a state of constant panic.In fact, if you believe the media it is amazing that people actually leave their houses at all.
Most recently people might well have gotten the impression that if they venture out they run the risk of being attacked by a rapist and or mugged by someone high on P or getting SARS.And if it is bad enough for us, then our children are at even greater risk.It seems a pedophile lurks behind every corner.In fact, danger lurks in our very house.If you survive leaky house syndrome, the use of chat rooms and groups may see young people abducted and sexually abused, used in pornographic movies and or having their organs sold.
The media seems almost obsessed by a sort of “panic of the day to make the news pay”. Of course there are the usual fillers, the feel-good stories about cats rescued from trees, the sports news (did we beat Australia at this or that?) and the other sections which pad out the paper (business, real estate, classified adds).But it is the front pages and the first few items on the evening news that attract our attention. And of course as consumers we pay for it.
Doggy news
Recently, papers such as the NZ Herald and the Sunday Star Times have had major features (or more like campaigns) on issues which they feel can beat up a panic or two.
No doubt the Sunday Star Times is patting itself on the back about its campaign to have the dog laws made tougher after a 4 year old girl was attacked by one.
Other media jumped on the bandwagon seizing on the latest panic, dogs on the loose, waiting round every corner (no doubt owned by pedophiles high on P).On the night after the attack “Holmes” interviewed the Minister of Local Government Chris Carter, a doctor who has treated victims of dog attacks, and a representative of the Rotweiller Association.Holmes virtually attacked the Minister and the Rotweiller owner while lapping up the doctor’s descriptions of the wounds inflicted by dogs.
Within the next few days there were a few cases of people throwing stones at dogs and their owners in public places (such as Long Bay).The NZ Herald reported the events with a sort of pious disgust, cynically since it was their grandstanding which launched the dog panic in the first place.
The end result was that our already tough dogs laws were made even tougher. The penalties were increased for owners of dogs who attacked people and most ridiculously people now have to turn their house into a sort of fortress if they have a dog. As well as fencing their property they will have to ensure anyone can get from the gate to the front door without hindrance from a dog. This will mean many people will need to erect new fencing both around their house and within its boundaries.
These new laws will impact most heavily on working and unemployed people, many of whom have a dog for companionship. By blaming the individual (a common theme in the media) these laws also increase individual isolation. We are encouraged to distrust those who own fierce-looking dogs (might they be criminals themselves?). The building of fences furthers this by contributing to cutting us off from our neighbors.
There is no doubt that the media presentation of the case of the little girl being savaged by a dog contributed to these new laws.Prior to the incident there were no plans to change the existing law.The evidence that dog attacks were on the increase is patchy at best and as pointed out by Chris Carter on “Holmes” in some areas attacks had gone down.
The way in which the media presents “facts” in a story or even the very facts it chooses to present contribute to our perception of events or trends in society.

Covering the Casualties
We see this on an international front.Most recently the imperialist war against Iraq quickly got presented and reported as a continuation of the so-called “war on terror.”
Even the New Zealand media, in a country which was not part of the US, led coalition of the willing (or should that be coalition for the drilling) reported events from a US slant. Iraqi casualties got in the road of stray bullets while every supposed victory of the US-led forces was reported in detail, even imaginary detail like the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch.
And if the New Zealand reporting was less than objective, the US reporting was simply slavish and embedded in the US civilising missionary position.News channels such as Fox (Murdoch’s monster) reported the war almost as if it were some sort of sport, using glib intros and dramatic commentary. Those that refused risked getting a stray bullet. It is hardly surprising in all this that the majority of US citizens supported the war.Unless they bothered to go on the internet and check out some of the alternative media sites or read some of the few anti-war papers like the Village Voice in New York they got a completely distorted picture.
The world media should hang its head in shame - in fact they should simply own up and admit they have been had,particularly now that it has been found that the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was supposed to have were non-existent. Of course, the media won’t hang its head, and the reason for this is simple: the media is part of the whole rotten game.It is a myth that the media is some sort of independent Fourth Estate. The media has always been dedicated to the Capitalist Estate.
The Capitalist Estate
50 years ago the media outlets in NZ were largely owned locally and run as independent businesses.They were fiercely capitalist (hardly surprising since they were capitalist enterprises). As the cartoon from the left wing publication “Tomorrow” in 1937 reflects, even then the media could be seen to have an agenda which was anti-worker. In his book “The Unauthorized Version – A Cartoon History of New Zealand” Ian Grant reflects that National Party advertising and newspaper editorials were “barely distinguishable” (Page 164 – 1980 edition).
The big difference that has occurred over the last 50 years is that most major media outlets are now concentrated in a few hands. As Isaac Kearse points out in his excellent article on the Indymedia website entitled “Who owns the media” ( Transnational Capitalism has the New Zealand Media sewn up.Referring to research from an article by Bill Rosenberg he starts with the following startling facts:
“Three multi-national corporations dominate the news media in NZ, combined they control over 90% of daily newspaper circulation over 90% of commercial radio stations commercial free-to-air and pay-TV”. He then goes on to break down the facts, documenting the three Billionaires who dominate the New Zealand media scene.
In the print media, the big player is Independent Newspapers Ltd (also known as INL). They provide 70% of newspapers, magazines and sporting publications in New Zealand. INL is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Ltd. [It has just been sold to Fairfax in Australia though this is unlikely to make much difference.] Murdoch is notorious for his interference and censorship of alternative points of view. The Fox Network mentioned earlier is also part of this evil empire.
One of the clearest examples of the Murdoch agenda can be seen in the following case outlined by Isaac Kearse:
“In 1996 WTVT, a Florida Fox-TV station owned by Murdoch provided perhaps the clearest example of censorship and interference by a media owner in history: In November 2 WTVT reporters uncovered that Florida's milk was coming from cows fed with a Monsanto hormone called rBGH. The hormone is legal in the US but was banned in many European countries after advice from medical researchers that it may lead to cancer of the colon in humans. Monsanto's lawyers contacted the executives of Fox-TV, and complained that the documentaries were inaccurate. Fox sent David Boylan to Florida, and eventually after more than 70 rewrites, the show was pulled, and the reporters fired, despite WTVT finding no fault with the reporting. In a moment of insane candour, David Boylan told an unvarnished truth, which should be framed and stuck on the top of every television set: "We paid $3 billion for these television stations," he snapped, "We'll decide what the news is. NEWS IS WHAT WE SAY IT IS.”
Murdoch’s operation is also notoriously anti-worker.His flagship the UK tabloid The Sun was one of the staunchest supporters of the Tories and the right-wing anti-union policies of Thatcher. The Sun only switched sides and editorialised in favour of Labour when Labour had swung so far to the right that it was clearly no longer any sort of threat to Big Business.
However, not content to merely editorialise, Murdoch went a step further, attempting to de-unionise his own business by moving non-union staff from the traditional home of UK News, Fleet Street, to a new plant at Wapping. He then got rid of the unionised staff in London, helped of course by the anti-union policies of Thatcher’s Government.
Other big players
In New Zealand, the other two big players are Wilson & Horton and CanWest. Wilson & Horton was the last major local player involved in the media game, the jewel in their crown being New Zealand’s biggest daily, The New Zealand Herald.The stable also includes The New Zealand Listener and The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.In all Wilson & Horton publications account for 41.6% of daily NZ circulation.
Wilson & Horton is now part of the Independent News & Media group, yet another transnational media giant.This arrangement also controls TRN which accounts for over 50% of radio advertising and was formed when the commercial radio stations of Radio New Zealand were sold off in 1996.
As for CanWest, this Canadian-based company owns TV3 and TV4, leaving TV1 & TV2 the only non-privately controlled TV stations.It is likely that if National is re-elected they will seek to sell off TV2 with the support of ACT who would probably prefer that the New Zealand Government had no involvement in either TV1 or TV2.
The fact that New Zealand’s media is merely a creature of international capitalism is no accident.The control and filtering of information to the public is a crucial lynchpin in capitalism’s overall agenda to limit dissent and suppress revolution.The media acts as a “gatekeeper” ensuring the public largely gets the establishment’s view.
Writers such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have written on the way in which the media is controlled by and for the interests of the powerful, most famously in their book “Manufacturing Consent.”
It follows from this that the type of stories the media pushes home in on individual responsibility and direct the blame to people rather than the structures they live under.So the problems are owners of fierce dogs and people with a criminal background, rather than capitalism which leads to such behaviour.
Nationalise Consent
Influenced by analysts like Chomsky, some so-called socialists believe that if the state can control the media, or own some of it, that this will solve the problem. Media can then be democratically regulated to reflect the interests of the masses rather than the capitalists. The problem with this “Social Democrat” solution is that as long as capitalism exists then the media will reflect the dominant bourgeois ideology. This represents society as based on the fetishised relations of exchange, inverting and obscuring the underlying social relations of production. While they are part of capitalist society, publicly-owned media will present reality as one in which the state can reform capitalism by making sure everyone gets paid the full value of their work.
This explains why state or quasi-state media organizations such as TENS with a public charter must promote a utopian view of society in which laws can regulate dogs, GE, interviewing style, solo mums, immigrants; and profits, so long as we are all devoted to equal rights and responsibilities, caring and sharing. Still, it is better to have a BBC that will tell Blair he has lied than a Fox that will bankroll Bush’s wars. We just have to be clear that the BBC’s critical stance presupposes that if Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction etc etc then Blair would have no case to answer. Of course it has nothing to do with the BBC that Blair had to lie to sell the war for oil.
One modern development that has given the media moguls a run for their money is the Internet.While the Internet is dominated by giant corporations - Microsoft, CNN, Yahoo etc. - it does open up sites for incitement.Amongst the ruling class there is a widespread hatred of the free-for-all that is the Internet but they need it to sell their commodities.The freedom of expression that exists on the Internet leads to a huge variety of material, some of which is downright offensive, but it is this very freedom which gives organizations like Indymedia the ability to get an alternative message out which in turn can be used in articles like this one.
Sadly, many on the left alarmed by some of the most extreme content on the net are calling for the state to step in and take more control of it.This is a crucial tactical error and works on the assumption that the state is some sort of neutral figure.If we cede control of the Net to the state or corporations like Microsoft then we lose the possibility of using the net to extend freedom of speech and the dissemination of information independently of the giant media combines. We must all fight for:
  • Unconditional defence of the internet and opposition to controls by business or the state
  • Fight any plans to sell the two State-owned TV stations or National Radio. Although state media has its weaknesses (as outlined above) it is still possible for citizens to have some say, however minor, in its running. Fighting for the democratic right to control the media is a crucial step towards socialising the media.
  • Support Journalists and printers involved in media unions whenever they take industrial action – it is crucial to keep the newspaper industry unionised
  • Speak out against the lies in the media on both national and international issues and seek wherever possible to publicise an alternative point of view.

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