Review: Whose News?

Documentary made by Aotearoa Independent Media Centre, 2004. 27 minutes.

This short documentary raises some serious issues about the quality of news in New Zealand media. Leading with the statement that NZ has the "most deregulated, commercialised media market in the world", it examines private ownership and the drive for profits with the implication they both have a profound effect on news content. But it sees the main culprit as foreign ownership.

Bill Rosenberg of the Campaign against Foreign Ownership sets out patterns of ownership in the press, radio and television. His argument is that not only do foreign owners dominate the media market, but they influence media content. The evidence he presents of the domination of NZ media by foreign owners is incontrovertible. But what about content?

Are foreign-owned media more business biased?

The commentary points to NZ having no restrictions on foreign ownership nor cross media ownership to prevent monopolies. But although the question of influence by these foreign owners is raised, the film gives only one example.

In 2001, as part of a campaign in the New Zealand Herald promoting NAFTA, the Herald owner Tony O'Reilly brought Brian Mulroney, a former Canadian Prime Minister, to NZ to advocate for international trade agreements. At the same time, the anti free-trade lobby brought Naomi Klein to speak. Thousands attended her public meetings. The Herald covered Mulroney extensively, while Klein was relegated to soft news on the features page.

Rosenberg suggests that Rupert Murdoch papers supported the war in Iraq but gives no evidence. The Guardian ran a story claiming that the Murdoch press editors world-wide followed their boss's pro-war line (Greenslade, 2003). Wellington’s Dominion was included.

Yet The Dominion also carried stories by Robert Fisk opposing the war and that the Labour Government had popular support for refusing to join President Bush's rush to war. Therefore the claim that their editorial line supported the US invasion of Iraq would seem to be unproven.

To test Rosenberg’s claim that foreign owners influence content, the documentary makers should have looked at the only remaining locally owned metropolitan daily in NZ, the Otago Daily Times, and compared its content with the other metropolitan dailies. The NZ press has always been a profit-making enterprise, and local capitalist owners must operate their papers in competition with their foreign-owned rivals. The bottom line means bottom feeders. So putting one’s faith in local media ownership is like asking Doug Myers to give the $500 million his family made from booze to NZ charities.

The sacking of Malcolm Evans

One section of the documentary looks at the dismissal of NZ Herald cartoonist, Malcolm Evans as a case of the censorship of political views. His cartoons on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drew complaints, Evans says, from Zionists. He was asked by the editor not to submit work on the subject. Evans says he was employed on the basis of editorial independence and refused this directive.

Should we defend Evan’s absolute right to freedom of speech? The cartoon at the centre of the controversy substituted a Star of David for the second 'a' in the word 'apartheid' on a wall in a Palestinian area. Evans quotes at length from Avraham Burg, an Israeli who objects to his Government's policy on Palestine, in support his own position. He equates his case with that of cartoonist Tony Auth whose cartoon in the Philadelphia Enquirer showed Arabs herded into jail-like sections of the Star of David. Lobby groups protested strongly but Auth's editor defended him publicly. See also the Oliphant cartoon above.

It is true that the Star of David associates all Jewish Israelis with their Government's treatment of Palestinians, including those who actively oppose the occupation of Palestine. One could argue that Evans is playing into the hands of Zionists who claim that pro-Palestinian supporters are anti-Semitic. Nevertheless Evans has a right to freedom of expression and we do not support his sacking. We are for mass media owned and controlled by the workers in which all views including anti-Semitism can be expressed openly and debated freely.

Profits vs. public service on quality news?

The documentary presents convincing evidence for the claim that commercial pressures undermine the quality of news. Joe Atkinson cites the deterioration of state television news since the push for deregulation in the 80s when TVNZ was made a State Owned Enterprise. But the real question is ‘how much deterioration’?

But the doco makers say it is "too soon" to test whether the new TVNZ charter with its public service goals, has made any impact on news and news programmes. Or is it?

When Bill Ralston became TVNZ's first head of news and current affairs under the charter, he came with a reputation as a good investigative journalist. But Ralston declared he wanted no more boring stories. Mediawatch (2004) has tracked the shedding of experienced journalists and the demise of the weekly documentary programme Assignment leaving Sunday to cover current affairs with stories that lack depth and context. Colin Peacock's comments imply it takes a tabloid approach;

Most often...Sunday's stories simply aren't newsworthy enough. Take last weekend - the Maori Party was registered, ACT got a new leader - but Sunday chose to trail this:

[trailer for a story on infidelity]"Are you being cheated on? Are you cheating? -It's our nature, women get away with affairs far more than guys do. Convinced it will never happen to you?" (Mediawatch, 2004).

Despite such alarming early signs, Whose News? concludes by suggesting public broadcasting is a solution and not part of the problem of inferior standards of news. This is a blind liberal act of faith. It needs to be put into the context of a state ‘hollowed-out’ by international capital with few resources to fund public service media, which is somehow going to pull off objective and balanced reporting? Pull the other one. Only a media owned and controlled by the workers can come anywhere near a ‘democracy of ideas’.

From Class Stuggle 58 October November 2004

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