Flasher trash and democracy, Bill Southworth

Revolution in the Air!
Paul Smith
Longman, $29.95
ISBN 0582 878101

Dangerous Democracy? News Media Politics in New Zealand 
Judy McGregor (ed)
Dunmore Press, $34.95
ISBN 086469 2595

When confronted with 50 or 60 television channels in a North American hotel room, tourists expect to enjoy a televisual feast. They rapidly discover a melancholy truth. More television doesn’t mean better television. The overall quality can be worse — much worse.

The same principle has applied in New Zealand since television was deregulated by the Labour Government in 1989. It has brought more choices but not better choices. Viewers with tastes running to something beyond vacuous North America situation comedies have noticed that for every new programme of merit there is an ever-rising sea of lowest common denominator trash. Some of the flasher trash is even made with help from their licence fee.

In his well-researched Revolution in the Air! Paul Smith sets out to explain why this happened. He does something most television critics never do — he writes about television rather than simply what is on television. Not since the late Warren Mayne has there been a critic who has been so good at looking at television’s big picture. Revolution deserves to be widely read. It has done something which doesn’t happen often enough: it has taken a major institution and plotted its decline after the free marketeers had their way with it. According to Smith:

New Zealand’s reforms entrenched television as overwhelmingly commercial. Profit-driven priorities were tempered only slightly by local content funded by New Zealand on Air. The reforms offered no genuine choice between commercial and non-commercial or even semi-commercial television. The result is an increasingly bland medium, whose potential to satisfy viewers has yet to be fulfilled.

The crowning glory of deregulation was the flinging open by National cabinet ministers of television to 100% foreign ownership. This means any outlet, including Television New Zealand, can pass into foreign control. No other western nation has been so foolish. Television is such an important shaper of mass culture that most reflective countries ensure they run a state-owned, non-commercial channel. They do so to avoid being swamped by the commercial cultures of others and to ensure that the coverage of important national issues has depth and quality.

Earlier and clearer heads in New Zealand accepted the wisdom of doing so. The 1973 Broadcasting Act instructed television to “inform, educate and entertain”, thereby treating television as something far too important to be left to crude market forces.

Some of the freest markets in the world see a role for public television. A few years ago I complimented the executive producer of a private Canadian network’s current affairs programme on the seriousness and depth of his product. He laughed and said: “We can’t get away with crap. The audience’s got the CBC to compare us with.” TVNZ used to fulfil that function here but it is now a public broadcaster in name only. We have nothing left with which to compare commercial television.

To argue for public broadcasting is not to argue against commercial outlets. Because they must maximise profits commercial outlets can’t devote the same resources to programme making. Neither can they be expected to make cultural responsibility a priority. The national and concert programmes of New Zealand Public Radio provide a classic example of the way public broadcasting can do these things. Their news and production teams are staffed at the levels needed for quality programme making, No private operator could afford to staff at these levels. Quite simply they would go broke.

It comes down to a question of our national priorities. The new right argue we can’t afford public television. Others argue we can’t afford to be without it if we value our culture and the need to inform public discourse. The requirement for television to inform, educate and entertain has been abolished. Television is now told to make money for the state and other commercial owners. TVNZ has done this task well. It made a profit for the government of $35 million in 1994, Cultural considerations have had to come a very distant second.

The business of commercial television is not selling programmes to viewers but selling audiences to advertisers. Quality (despite the best efforts of some who work in commercial television) is required to take a back seat to building up lowest common denominator mass audiences, Populist, vacuous trash brings in high ratings and big bucks. Advertising rules. The advertising time each hour on our national television systems is now amongst the ugliest in the world, Smith says. “Like Madge in the Palmolive ad, the industry is ‘soaking een eet’.” He goes on to cite a letter from an English traveller to The NZ Listener:

I now leave for England with a new set of desires: to watch a 90-minute film on TV in one and a-half hours instead of two; to hear a sports report on the radio without hearing the sponsor’s name and catchy logo; to watch a report on a holiday destination that Air New Zealand does not fly to. God bless the BBC, I shall never again complain about the British TV licence. I know why I pay it. Do you?

Mass audiences are perfectly entitled to pap. But what about the rest of us? We have been left without a non-commercial channel devoted to serious television, without real choice and without a true range of programming. New Zealand On Air may have dramatically increased the crude bulk of local programming, but it has made the fatal mistake of allowing itself to be sculptured to the needs of advertising sales. The commercial channels probably can’t believe their luck. They can use the licence fee to subsidise commercial programmes they would have made anyway, their profits are literally being underwritten by the television licence fee. The mass audience commercial soap, Shortland Street, has received millions of dollars from NZOA.

CanWest, the Canadian network which bought a stake in TV3, has never bothered making many programmes in Canada. It prefers to buy them ready-made from the United States. It used to be known as “The Love Boat” network. It is possible that, thanks to NZOA funding, CanWest/TV3 makes more programmes in New Zealand than CanWest makes in the whole of Canada. According to The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business CanWest chairman and CEO Izzy Asper told a meeting of TV3 staff in Auckland that, unlike them, he was in the business of “retailing” other peoples’ programmes, not making them: “You’re all wrong and that’s why you’re bankrupt,” said lzzy. “You’re in the business of selling soap.”

Smith believes that during much of the deregulation period television (including its news and current affairs) became a cheerleader for the free market. The trend seemed to be worldwide. Journalists stopped asking some basic questions…

…questions about who runs society and why and how and for whom. The people meant to ask those questions were journalists… They dined with the establishment, often removed and unaware of the hunger outside … Reaganomics, Thatcherism, Rogernomics. Was it just a coincidence that the market values in each of these versions of monetarism had damaged the quality of news and public information so severely? Could all the ethics be so wrong? And if not, what were the implications for liberal democracies as a result of the diluted news flow which resulted from market-led reforms?

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but it is wrong to argue that most journalists sat down at the rich man’s table and ignored their journalistic responsibilities. However, the sheet volume of commercial sponsorship in news, current affairs and information programmes, the concentration of television news bulletins on middle class issues, plus the heavy coverage of business elites, have left viewers with the impression that television is now more interested in markets than their victims.

What probably happened is something more obvious. The best way to get big audiences is the tabloid approach. The choice has come down to an up-market tabloid like Television One news, a down-market tabloid like 60 Minutes or a true slimetime sleaze tabloid like Hard Copy. The concentration on crime, glitz, “human tragedy”, illnesses, freaks and the ongoing soap opera that is the House of Windsor simply does not allow time for serious programmes about political, economic and societal change.

Those able to tune their sets to the local stations in the Horizon Pacific network will see something close to public service television. Local news and local issues are handled at some depth — and as a bonus Horizon runs some good BBC documentary series. However, Horizon is owned by TVNZ. Insiders believe it was developed as a fig leaf to enable TVNZ executives to argue that New Zealand doesn’t need a public television system because it already has its equivalent. If this is so, the executives will be ignoring the fact that original, non-commercial New Zealand public affairs and cultural programmes are not shown on Horizon and in any event many areas cannot receive its signal.

There is a chorus in commercial television today with selective amnesia about the quality and range of programming available before deregulation. It dismisses serious television for being “too national programme” and points to the sheer volume of local programming as somehow justifying the changes. Unlike Smith, this chorus overlooks the fact that the growth in television’s programme volumes has yet to be accompanied by a growth in quality or even, ironically, a growth in the overall audience size.

Smith traces the way public service television was destroyed swiftly with little or no informed debate. The book deserves to be a best-seller but many in television will hate it. Its vision is clearer and its memory less deficient than theirs.

2

Dangerous Democracy? News Media Politics in New Zealand is largely about the print medium. Its 16 authors raise issues about the performance of the press but most of the essays have an almost surreal quality about them because they ignore the commercial context in which newspapers have to operate.

London’s national press provides a stark example of how mass media print markets actually work. Serious “quality” newspapers (at best) attract only a few hundred thousand readers. Tabloid newspapers capture millions with a fast-food diet of crime, royal couplings, Alf Garnett-style political analysis and sports. Such basic market determinants sometimes seem to have barely penetrated the common rooms of media studies faculties.

Even while working with market realities, many journalists and owners accept that journalism has a higher social purpose than simply to make money. That they so often ignore the preference of many readers for light and fluffy content and instead concentrate on important information and insights is to their credit. As an industry, the print medium shames many others by the level of the resources it is prepared to put into the training and retraining its journalists.

Having said that, there is, of course, much to criticise. However the news media’s diverse nature — ranging from supermarket tabloids and flash trash television “information’ programmes to first-rate print and electronic journalism — defies generalisations. It is, like Dangerous Democracy?, something of a curate’s egg.

The nature of the media marketplace seems to have escaped Sir Geoffrey Palmer. In an essay entitled “Towards a Constitutional Theory for the Media in the MMP Era” he criticises the media for their performance in reporting complex constitutional matters. He points out that the New York Times and The Australian are much better at this sort of thing.

The New York Times is a wonderful national newspaper which prints in locations across America. It has a circulation of 1.2 million in a country of 260 million. About one in 217 Americans buys it. We don’t have a similar national daily newspaper, so what sort of a circulation would such a newspaper have in New Zealand if one person in 217 read it? The answer is 16,188 — hardly a big enough readership base to fund our own daily version of a New York Times.

The Australian has a circulation of 120,000 in a country with a population of 18 million. It seems about one Australian in 150 buys it. Better, but not good enough. On this basis a similar New Zealand national daily newspaper could look forward to a circulation of perhaps 24,000, Leaving aside the fact that The Australian has in the past been a notorious loss maker for its owners, 24,000 is certainly not a big enough circulation to cover the wage and distribution costs of the sort of quality national daily Sir Geoffrey is so taken with, The newspaper industry here would presumably argue it is not a question of not wanting to develop a quality national newspaper but rather a question of not being able to find enough readers to justify it economically.

Sir Geoffrey says the New Zealand media flunk most tests in the constitutional area and by a wide margin. However, he was part of the 1984-90 Labour Government which did more than any other to reduce the volume of in-depth journalism in New Zealand. First, when it deregulated broadcasting in 1989 it required TVNZ to place profits before programmes, with dire consequences for most serious broadcasting journalism. Second, when it created the climate for intense free-market competition it had consequences for the media observed earlier in the United States by The Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz:

In such an atmosphere it is increasingly difficult for “respectable” newspapers to ignore their swamp-dwelling colleagues. Gossip becomes news, if gossip is what people are talking about.

Mike Moore, in an uneven contribution, “News Politics and Election Campaigning: A Victim’s View”, at least acknowledges that economic change has affected standards.

The structure of broadcasting needs to change, too, although I acknowledge it is our own fault that television works from ratings. In New Zealand we insist on broadcasting making money, so the upshot is we have more naked breasts on the news. One state-owned television channel and one state-owned radio network plus the commercial offerings may be the best model for a civilised society which takes its news seriously.

Sir Geoffrey says that the media, particularly political reporters and analysts, will face a great challenge in reporting MMP politics and that if they do not lift their game they will be responsible for the system not working as well as it could, He can take heart. Literally hundreds of journalists from around the country have been attending seminars over the past two months on how to report MMP.

Judy McGregor in “Talkback and the Art of ‘Yackety Yak’ in Politics” charts new waters with a look at the significance of talkback radio. The way politicians increasingly use it to reach audiences (especially without journalists putting testing questions to them) concerns her. Some see the phenomenon as an exercise in democracy and others as a form of political propaganda.

Occasional listeners to talkback radio can be in for a double surprise. Much of it comprises strongly held but poorly backgrounded opinions from callers moderated by equally poorly briefed hosts. However, it can also provide a voice for people who obviously feel disenfranchised by the mainline media. No one seems quite sure how talkback can be factored into the assessment of election campaigns. Mike Moore again:

I’m not sure, though, that talkback isn’t a fad. I suspect the talkback audience is currently static. Listeners expect a certain diet from John Banks and they get what they expect. But hosts like Banks are only cult figures for a small group of like-minded people. There is no real evidence that talkback now reaches a “new constituency”.

Steve Maharey in “Politicians as News Sources” says he has been struck by the changing attitude of some of the people who control the news media. He instances a remark by from Derek Lowe of Radio Pacific who replied to criticism of his station using protester Sue Bradford to cover a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland by saying that journalistic ethics requiring a reporter to operate impartially were a bit precious and outdated.

Maharey says such attitudes are a worrying trend because people will trust the media less than they do now. The short answer to that is that some in the media are a lot closer to the entertainment business than they are to serious news but that most consumers can rapidly spot the difference.

One of the more perceptive essays in the collection is “Skin Deep: The News Media’s Failure to Cover Maori Politics”, by Manawatu Evening Standard journalist John Saunders. Saunders covered the Moutoa Gardens dispute in Wanganui and later interviewed some of its participants about their impressions of the media.

Saunders found most on the Maori side were appalled at the youth and obvious ignorance of many of the reporters. They also said some reporters seemed to be almost panting to report a punch-up rather than doing some real cross-cultural digging to give their readers useful background on the nature of the dispute.

Reporters are drawn from general society and tend to reflect its range of attitudes on such issues. Some are culturally aware and want to dig out the facts behind land disputes. Some are intolerant and automatically side with reflex notions of law and order. The rest, like most of us, are probably a little confused when covering unfamiliar territory. The news media, through its training organisation, currently has a major push under way to increase the number of Maori training as journalists. The industry is putting considerable resources into this effort because there is a recognition that newsrooms should reflect New Zealand’s multicultural nature.

Dangerous Democracy? is a useful contribution to the relatively new field of media studies in New Zealand. Much of its content is useful and more journalists than a cynic might imagine will welcome most of its observations and conclusions.

Bill Southworth is a former newspaper editor and television current affairs producer who is executive director of the New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation.

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