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Mainstream media chiefs and the five stages of grief

The Government giving money for journalism with strings attached is creating big problems for the organisations which accepted it. Some now regret taking the handouts. Graham Adams reports.
Graham Adams
Contributing Writer
February 18th, 2022

OPINION: Listening to Newsroom’s co-editor Mark Jennings rail against people who accuse the mainstream media of having been bought by the government’s $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, it was impossible to not think of the Five Stages of Grief.

Fifty years ago, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined the now-famous stages of denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance to describe how people cope with illness and dying. 

Since then the stages have been used to describe everything from divorce and drug rehab to political upheavals (such as the profound grief experienced by many Democratic Party supporters after Trump won in 2016). 

It has also become evident that the stages often don’t follow a linear progression, and people might experience only a few of them, or several at the same time.

Listening to The Detail — a podcast put together by RNZ and Newsroom, and supported, ironically, by the Public Interest Journalism Fund — it appeared that Jennings is caught between denial, anger and bargaining (in the sense of struggling to find meaning). 

Referring to accusations of the media cuddling up to the government, he said: “It makes me angry. It’s so misguided. We’ve gone after the government in so many different ways.”

The podcast’s host — Newsroom producer Alexia Russell — was angry too. Given the fact her podcast is funded by the government, she sarcastically admitted she was part of “the Team of $55 million apparently being controlled like puppets by Jacinda Ardern… and I’m really sick of hearing that.” 

Newsroom

She then described the fund as “a lightning rod for those who love to shoot the messenger” — apparently oblivious to the irony of the podcast itself taking potshots at those who have criticised the handouts.

Jennings denounced these messengers as giving voice to “conspiracy theory nonsense” that is “just bollocks”.

To prove just how ludicrous such “conspiracy theory nonsense” is, The Hui’s presenter Mihingarangi Forbes said: “We would fall over laughing if someone from the Government rang us up and told us to go easy… it just doesn’t happen.”

As it happens, no serious critic is suggesting that the fund, which is administered by NZ On Air, obliges successful applicants to not criticise the Government (or that government officials contact journalists to tell them what to say). 

What critics have focused on are the criteria that prescribe how the Treaty of Waitangi should be presented — a point that Forbes, Jennings and Russell conveniently never mentioned.

The section describing the fund’s goals recommends “actively promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner“.

And the first of the general eligibility criteria requires all applicants to show a “commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to Māori as a Te Tiriti partner”.

Critics allege that the media fund has a very particular focus and an overriding purpose: to discourage criticism of the government’s push for co-governance with Māori even as it is being inserted into a broad swathe of the nation’s life — from legislation governing the RMA and health to the conservation estate and Three Waters, among many others.

In short, anyone wanting to argue that the Treaty doesn’t imply a “partnership” is very unlikely to get any money. Yet, the question of a “partnership” is exactly what critics of the Government’s co-governance plans — who are alarmed at the prospect of 16 per cent of the population being granted equal say with the other 84 per cent in many spheres of New Zealand life — are contesting.

The proof, as always, lies in the pudding — and discovering what essential ingredients have been left out. It is extremely easy to find instances where the mainstream media has been plainly derelict in its duty to inform voters about what some see as the Government’s stealthy and relentless push to establish an “ethno-nationalist state” (as Auckland University professor Elizabeth Rata has described it).

Why, for instance, with Three Waters legislation scheduled to be introduced next month, has the public still not been told whether iwi will get royalties? It’s hard to imagine any aspect of the reforms that could spark more opposition than this — and one that goes to the heart of who, if anyone, owns water. 

Yet the media has, almost without exception, avoided asking Local Government minister Nanaia Mahuta or Jacinda Ardern that question. When RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan did ask Mahuta, the Nine to Noon host was so deferential the minister easily sidestepped it.

And why, when the legislation setting up the Māori Health Authority is already before Parliament, do the public still not know whether it will have the power of veto over Health New Zealand, which will represent the rest of the population?

Why is the mainstream media so timid in discussing the insertion of mātauranga Māori into the NCEA science syllabus as equal to physics, chemistry and biology? The debate was sparked last July by a letter to the Listener signed by seven eminent professors. But after a brief and intense flurry of discussion — mostly criticising the professors — the media fell silent.

If you want to understand the argument in detail you’ll have to read the blog of Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago, who continues to write about it regularly. 

Why has this debate — so intrinsic to the integrity of our school science programme — been almost entirely outsourced to an evolutionary biologist who lives in the US?

Why has the mainstream media also avoided covering the Te Ara Paerangi — Future Pathways Green Paper? It recommends inserting mātauranga Māori and “embedding Te Tiriti” throughout our entire science and research sector with all the implications that will have for staffing, funding and our universities’ and researchers’ international reputations.

Submissions on the paper close in mid-March but the only mention I have found in the media was in the Otago Daily Times, which last November — under the heading “The govt’s next big experiment” — remarked: “Another government behemoth quietly slipped out of the shipyards and headed out to sea, largely below the radar”.

Last June, RNZ and the NZ Herald uncritically published claims that Māori discovered Antarctica with no evidence other than a flimsy oral account to support them. 

As far as I can tell, no major media outlet has given similar prominence to Sir Tipene O’Regan’s follow-up paper in September titled, “On the improbability of pre-European Polynesian voyages to Antarctica: a response to Priscilla Wehi and colleagues”. The paper’s co-authors concluded: “Antarctic voyaging by pre-European Polynesians seems most unlikely.”

O’Regan is one of Māoridom’s most-venerated leaders so why would his counter-view be judged to be of so little importance on such a contentious topic?

Could it be that the claims are an attempt by iwi to gain formal influence over New Zealand’s Antarctica policy under an interpretation of the Treaty as a partnership? But who would know? Journalists generally avoid asking or discussing such questions.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions scattered among mainstream media reports but the overwhelming impression is one of avoidance and evasion and half-truths when it comes to issues that are connected with Treaty “partnership”.

Of course, most members of the public won’t care about the finer points of critics’  objections. Most will only know that the Government offered selected media organisations tens of millions of dollars with strings attached — and that their chiefs were stupid or venal or careless enough of their reputations to take it. 

As one tweeter put it this week: “It’s called business. They shook hands. They’re sold.”

They also won’t care whether the recipients of the Government’s largesse are publicly owned, such as RNZ, or privately owned, such as Stuff.

Despite Jennings’ anger at critics and his assertion he has no regrets personally about taking government money, there were indications in the podcast that he could see that the mainstream media has a serious problem on its hands — and one of its own making. 

He admitted that people working in media have told him they now regret taking the Government’s shilling given the extent of the trouble it has caused. 

Jennings: “A couple of [people working in the media] have said to me: ‘I wish we had never gone into this… It has taken up so much of our executive time. It’s cost us money. And now the public are saying we’re on the government’s payroll… So it’s got a negative perception for us [and] we wish we’d never touched the whole thing.’”

You might interpret this as a tentative move among some managers towards acceptance, inasmuch as they are beginning to realise they have made a colossal blunder and failed to notice — in their enthusiasm for free cash — they were selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Last year, businessman Bruce Cotterill, a former CEO of ACP Magazines, suggested media companies return the Government’s money. Writing in the NZ Herald in September, Cotterill pointed out that some of the media had done very well out of taxpayer-funded ads for Covid and Three Waters.

Cotterill wrote: “In light of the recently published financial results of media companies, I wonder whether it’s timely to consider refunding some or all of the [$55 million] support package… There is nothing quite as dangerous in any democracy as a media that is beholden to the Government.”

Unfortunately, handing back the money is no longer a simple solution — millions have been dispensed for ongoing projects and the fund is now paying directly for a swathe of staff roles, including dedicated writers and Māori “partnership editors”.

Given that so much funding is locked in, it looks like the recipients of government money are simply going to have to accept they will continue to be the target of constant taunts.

And not only by a steady stream of casual commentators on Facebook and on other social media. It has now become the proud boast of several smaller journalism sites that they don’t take government money. Among them is interest.co.nz, The BFD, The Daily Blog, and broadcaster Sean Plunket’s new startup The Platform.

Last weekend, Martyn Bradbury, whose Daily Blog sits well to the left of politics, tweeted about the protests at Parliament: “I note none of the journalism outlets taking Government money have criticised Trevor [Mallard’s] spectacular cluster f**k. Is this investigative journalism, is it?”

Martyn 'Bomber' Bradbury

On Monday, he advertised his podcast The Working Group with a tweet: “If [the mainstream media] won’t hold Mallard  to account — WE WILL! NZ’s bestest weekly political podcast NOT funded by NZonAir.”

Last week, in an interview, Sean Plunket tweaked Duncan Greive’s nose over his website The Spinoff receiving Government cash — and a lot of it.

In discussing how his own new media site would be funded, Plunket made it clear that he wouldn’t be taking money from the taxpayer. 

“In all good conscience, I just couldn’t do it… No money from NZ On Air… no money from the journalism fund. We’d rather run a business that can sustain itself without a state handout, which comes with strings attached. 

“And, Duncan, you can’t look at me and tell me that the money The Spinoff gets doesn’t come with strings attached!”

In his reply, Greive revealed a lot about his view of journalism as a commodity when — clearly back-footed — he blustered about the government “procuring journalism or content like it does any other service”. 

The Spinoff

Plunket, however, wasn’t going to be sidetracked by a novel view of the Fourth Estate as no more important to society than, say, procuring a new payroll system, and pressed home his point: “Do you have to recognise and promote the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi when you get NZ On Air money?”

As Greive struggled to articulate an answer, Plunket said triumphantly: “That’s an editorial compromise, Duncan!” 

Senior journalists have argued that the amounts granted by the media fund are so small in relation to their company’s total revenue that their influence is minuscule and should be disregarded.

However, a well-worn anecdote long ago established the problems inherent in that argument.   

At a dinner party, Sir Winston Churchill says to his dinner companion, “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”

Socialite: “My goodness, Mr Churchill. I suppose I would.”

Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”

Socialite: “Mr Churchill! What kind of woman do you think I am?”

Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”

There is no easy way out now for the media organisations that have accepted government cash with its attendant instructions about how the Treaty must be discussed. The damage is done.

It is, of course, not the fault of individual journalists. Rather it is due to the shortsightedness of their employers who made a Faustian pact with the Government without adequately assessing the dangers of selling their souls in exchange for their biggest asset — public trust in their impartiality and independence.

Only when they openly accept that dismal fact — and publicly acknowledge they not only made a mistake but have also put their employees in an invidious and unfair position — will the cycle of grief be complete.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.