Mediawatch looks critically at the New Zealand media - television, radio, newspapers and magazines as well as the 'new' electronic media. It also examines the performance of the agencies, corporations and institutions that regulate them. It looks into the impact the media has on the nation, highlighting good practice as well as bad along the way - and it also enquires into overseas trends and technological developments which New Zealanders need to know about.
It aims to enlighten everyone with an interest in the media about how it all works, how quickly things are changing - and how certain significant stories and issues are being covered. It's also intended to be essential listening for those who work in the industry itself - as well as those who simply enjoy well-produced and lively radio.
Mediawatch for 15 December 2019
Media probe risks and rewards of tourism - and the emotional push for recovery; the state of our media in 2019; televising the Xmas party.
Media probe risks and rewards of tourism:
Once again, the media were in emergency mode this week when Whakaari / White Island erupted. They raised important questions about risks and rewards of tourism - and some got involved in the emotional push to recover the missing.
This week, once again, we saw a prime minister in the media talking about a tragedy on our soil in which citizens of several nations lost their lives.
It was an echo of Christchurch in March this year - and, come to think of it - Christchurch back in 2011.
"White Island is about to take on a new and terrible resonance. The first thing it'll mean when we hear it mentioned - like the rollcall of names Tangiwai, Erebus, Aramoana, Wahine, Pike River – is death,” wrote Steve Braunias in the New Zealand Herald.
This disaster also reminded some people of the Pike River Mine disaster in 2010 for a more specific reason - the particular distress over delays in retrieving those who died because the environment was still considered too toxic and volatile to approach.
Reporters across the media - many of whom are now experienced at emergency journalism - did a fine job bringing what was known to be true to the information-hungry public - and they also conveyed the lack of clarity in what had yet to be confirmed.
In the absence of some key facts from official sources - even two and three days after the eruption - most media did not speculate on what was not known or play fast and loose with people's emotions.
The Project on Three last Tuesday allowed several witnesses to tell their stories in their own words and showed how Whakatāne - and specifically Ngāti Awa - responded to the crisis.
But on the same programme, Mark Inman - the brother of dead tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman - criticised “red-tape”and “bureaucrats” delaying the recovery of bodies - as he praised the chopper pilots who bravely scrambled to try to save his brother and others.
“I’d rather break a few rules and save some lives than sit here wondering what we could’ve done," one of those pilots, Tom Storey, told The Project that night.
“I'm told (the eight bodies) could be retrieved in 15 minutes by the pilots who know where they are," a sympathetic Patrick Gower told viewers.
At the end of a 14-minute interview on RNZ’s Checkpoint on Wednesday pilot Tim Barrow was more reluctant to condemn the decision-makers.
"I appreciate people making decisions that they think are the right ones, however I also believe that sometimes you've just got to act," he said.
Shortly after that on Wednesday, viewers of The Project saw Newshub’s Patrick Gower take to the air with Mark Inman and chopper pilot Tom Storey, who aired their grievances about what Patrick Gower called “a government refusal to get the bodies back”.
Hovering at the edge of the no-fly zone around the island, Patrick Gower asked Mark Inman to send a message to Jacinda Ardern and officials.
“Pull your finger out," said Mark Inman.
"I challenge Jacinda Arden to come out and have a look for herself," Tom Storey told Patrick Gower.
Tom Storey also said he took the PM’s partner Clarke Gayford to Whakaari /White Island to film for his TV fishing show last year.
“I got her husband off safely. Let me get the rest,” he said on The Project.
Patrick Gower then insisted "toxic sort of fumes" and gas venting from the island were no problem for a recovery mission.
On Twitter, Patrick Gower copped criticism for dragging the PM’s family into the issue - and for stirring the emotions of people in grief and shock, including the chopper pilots who’d been through the worst of times 48 hours earlier.
The former political editor crossed over into campaigning when he urged the PM to disregard expert advice and police instructions.
When the Defence Force-led recovery mission did get underway on Friday morning it took several hours - not 20 minutes - and it could not recover all eight missing people. An SAS soldier taking part described being "past the limits of endurance".
It was only natural for people to want to retrieve friends and loved ones in spite of the danger highlighted by experts and the authorities. Those with rescue skills and the requisite courage were inevitably frustrated at being unable to help.
But it wasn't just desk-bound health and safety types who believed Whakaari/ White Island was unsafe for improvised retrieval missions.
As we know from previous disasters, assessing risk and issuing good advice is complicated - and the reasons why caution was exercised were not well explained.
While the mounting frustration of those who wanted to ‘get the job done’ was aired over two nights on The Project, the show aired barely two minutes of University of Canterbury volcanologist Tom Wilson on the show on Tuesday to explain the dangers.
Shortly before that on Newstalk ZB’s Drive show the same day, Heather du Plessis Allan had her own first take on the role of first responders.
“If the private citizens hadn’t gone to rescue the injured, would they still be there? Would police have gone for them? We’re going to have to make a decision as a country about what we want our first responders to do,” she told her listeners.
Are we going to have redefine the job description of first responders? On what grounds?
She didn't say, in a comment piece that was mainly a series of unanswered questions.
While the recovery operation was under way, the AM show host Duncan Garner told his viewers it wouldn't be without the outcry - as seen in the media.
"I am in no doubt it's only going ahead because of the community and whānau pressure following the powerful words of chopper pilot Mark Law, who said to us on Wednesday: 'Let's go bring these fellas home'," he said.
(He also claimed there was "a 50 percent chance of an eruption at any time" which was incorrect and misleading).
On Saturday - after the recovery operation - fellow ZB host Jack Tame said criticism of the police was “irresponsible, unreasonable and totally misplaced”.
“It is one thing for rescuers to risk their lives to save living people, but to risk their lives to collect bodies, when the relevant experts say there is a significant risk of another explosion, would be reckless beyond belief,” he said.
“Everyone tut-tutting at health and safety procedures should keep in mind that in months to come, a lack of red tape may prove to be the cause of this disaster in the first place,” he added.
The Dominion Post reports details of the investigations and an inquiry to come into the tragedy. The Dominion Post reports details of the investigations and an inquiry to come into the tragedy. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch
Is adventure tourism's red tape too loose?
While politicians repeatedly said it was too soon yet to ask such questions, it is entirely legitimate for media to ask if a risk-averse culture influenced the decision makers’ choices - and if the prospect of an official inquiry picking over people’s actions on the day had an influence too. The confusing claim that a criminal investigation was under way - later retracted - could also have been a factor.
On Scoop.co.nz, Gordon Campbell looked back at the Pike River inquiry for pointers.
“It is worth recalling that the Royal Commission dismissed the criticism that a rescue attempt might have been possible between the first explosion . . . .and the second explosion five days later. However, the Commissioners also criticised the ‘cumbersome’ nature of the emergency response ‘which could have impeded a rescue had one proved possible’,” Gordon Campbell reported.
Difficult and raw questions about whether people should have have been in harm’s way on the island were also raised in the media - here and overseas.
The Washington Post quoted the mother of newlyweds from the US as saying she was “livid” they were allowed to visit such a dangerous place
Monash University volcanologist Ray Cas called White Island “a disaster waiting to happen for many years” and our media followed up on that.
The whole concept of ‘adventure tourism’ is now being debated by the media.
Scoop’s Gordon Campbell pointed out regulations often allow commercial operators to make the day-to-day risk management judgments.
He reckoned the ‘fine print’ letting customers know about the risks can also serve as a kind of marketing.
“Until an accident happens, such warnings readily become part of the sales package, and get treated as a marginal thrill factor,” he said.
“They don’t get portrayed as a palpable danger that’s likely to kill any customers who happen to be in the vicinity at the wrong moment, and without any warning,” he said.
The same could be said of media reports of adventure tourism attractions.
For instance last Tuesday under the headline Why were tours still operating? Stuff travel writer Broke Sabin - a former political reporter - said “the decision-making (should be) taken away from those who also have a financial interest - and into the hands of experts who know more than anyone.”
Back in June Brook Sabin himself wrote about a trip to White Island at a time it was on alert level 2 and tour company staff were going ahead of tour groups to assess conditions.
While he mentioned the apparent dangers in his article and questioned the safety of visits, it also served as an endorsement.
“Travel is ultimately about creating moments you'll never forget - just like this one. None of us will ever get to Mars, but this is the next best thing,” he wrote.
But it now seems unlikely tourists will get to Whakaari/ White Island in the foreseeable future.
The media play a big part in publicising the rewarding experiences of adventure tourism.
Now they’ll have to scrutinise the renewed efforts to weigh up the risks as well.
On the brink? The state of our media in 2019:
Our Fourth Estate is "collapsing" according to Winston Peters. This week he set out what he wants as the coalition government ponders a new policy for the media - due to be unveiled any day now. But what does the most comprehensive annual survey of the state of it all reveal?
While the PM addressed reporters this week on the Whakaari/ White Island disaster, her deputy praised their work in a press conference he called on Thursday morning.
“It underscores the role of news media at times of natural disaster, both in the Bay of Plenty and in the South Island during the recent storm," Peters told the reporters.
But it was the storm faced by their media outfits in these digitally disrupted days that he zeroed in on.
He spoke of “the collapse of the Fourth Estate here”, referencing Keith Holyoake, Thomas Jefferson and even Nelson Mandela along the way.
“News media companies which were once powerhouses are now sunset industries,” said Winston Peters.
Those were tough words to hear for New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie and his boss Michael Boggs, the chief executive at the Herald’s publisher, NZME. Both were there as Mr Peters spoke in Parliament along with other NZME executives.
It would have been music to their ears when Mr Peters said his NZ First Party backed NZME’s renewed effort to take over rival news publisher Stuff to create one big news company.
The Commerce Commission and the courts knocked back their proposed merger in 2017, but since then NZME has lobbied hard for a green light from government for a new proposal tweaked to include ‘Kiwishare’-style concessions.
This was big news for NZME’s newspapers which ran the story the next day, but a red flag for the next-biggest New Zealand publisher Allied Press which would come under pressure from a super-sized national competitor.
“Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is dead wrong when he says our Fourth Estate is collapsing," Allied’s flagship paper the Otago Daily Times said this weekend under the headline: “No future in monopolising news”
"This story lacks balance: some companies, by virtue of their own actions, are worse off than others," said the ODT.
"Allied Press has opposed the mega-merger since it was sought in 2016. All that has changed is the provision of a Kiwishare plan that could be reviewed (read abandoned) after only a few years," it added in an editorial.
Public media policy gets a push
On Thursday, Winston Peters went on to say he also backed efforts led by Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi to reshape our public broadcasters.
An announcement on that has been flagged by the end of the year - maybe - and Peters clearly wants the public to know he has influenced the policy before it is unveiled.
But the problem is no-one outside the minister, the Cabinet and a few selected officials and advisers know what that is yet.
This might mean a mashing-together of RNZ and TVNZ - and more money for privately-owned media to tap into for news and journalism.
Last month, an advisory group of media bosses and civil service chiefs told the government the status quo is not sustainable for our media, echoing warnings earlier in the year from TVNZ's chief executive Kevin Kenrick, MediaWorks’ boss Michael Anderson and NZME’s Michael Boggs.
This year, NZME took the plunge and put up a paywall to make people pay for premium stuff from The Herald.
Last week the chief executive of Stuff - the publisher of most of the country’s newspapers and NZ’s biggest news website - told Newsroom it’s thinking about something similar.
But complicating the equation is Stuff’s current owner - Australian media company Nine - trying to sell it off.
The offshore private equity owners of MediaWorks want to sell its TV channels as well.
All of this means hundreds of jobs in New Zealand journalism - and the back offices - are at risk from decisions that will be made by the government and offshore owners.
And while those offshore owners want out of the New Zealand market, online streaming services like Amazon Prime and Disney Plus have come in this year further splitting up the audience and the money it's prepared to pay for premium entertainment.
The most comprehensive analysis of the media scene each year is the New Zealand Media Ownership Report.
It was created by economist Bill Rosenberg many years ago and is now published by the Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy at the AUT.
"New Zealand’s broadcasting sector, both public and commercial, is facing the biggest structural upheaval in a decade," said Dr Merja Myllylahti, JMAD co director and the main author of the 2019 report.
"I think it’s the hardest report we have ever done. I was updating the report constantly and just when I thought we could finish it off something would pop up like the RNZ/ TVNZ 'new entity' proposal and the NZME-Stuff merger surfaced again,“ Dr Merja Myllylahti told Mediawatch.
Does she agree with those who say the New Zealand media scene is “unsustainable“?
“Working on this report I started to feel like we have been saying for a long time there is a lot of trouble for the media. Last year we were a bit more optimistic but this year I was thinking this is really looking quite bad," she said.
"A lot of media companies are making losses. They’re cutting dividends and cutting operations like MediaWorks trying to sell its TV operations. Maybe it’s too strong to see your media ecosystem is on the verge of collapse but I really feel like it is,“ she said
Five key trends and events in the JMAD 2019 report:
MediaWorks gains new owner, its TV business is up for sale
Government-owned media facing a fundamental restructure
New Zealand Rugby became a substantial shareholder of Sky TV
The NZ Herald introduced a paywall, other pay models expand
An influx of streaming services entered the New Zealand market
While the future of public broadcasting is in the hands of the government, Dr Merja Myllylahti said the future of commercial television will be decided by private equity firms, investment managers and financial shareholders.
In 2019, Australian Quadrant Private Equity and American Oaktree Capital became joint owners of MediaWorks. If MediaWorks’ owners fail to sell its television business, the company has warned it may close.
Two offshore financial institutions - Scottish asset management firm Kiltearn Partners and British fund manager Jupiter Asset Management - are the largest shareholders of Sky TV.
But if media companies here have trouble attracting investment, and shareholders who want dividends desert them, is it a good thing private equity at least is willing to invest in our local media?
“I think if you look at what’s happening in the US, private equity companies have bought a lot of newspaper assets. To attract more value they cut costs ... and that means less journalism in the newsrooms. In the end private equity doesn’t have an interest in the news - just maximising returns,“ she said.
The JMAD report for 2019 has an eye-opening section about multi-billion dollar deals between US media companies and some well-known brands and mastheads coming under the control of fewer and fewer owners.
While it’s widely known that the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post, the JMAD report lists a number of other billionaires who have major stakes in individual publications and media outlets.
"In the US and the UK we’ve seen billionaires buy news assets and magazines. So far so good at the Washington Post where it’s been working well, but why don’t we have that here?," asked Dr Myllylahti.
"We might lose hundreds of jobs in the media sector next year. Do our wealthy people really care? Have they showed any signs of that? No-one so far has put their hands up and we do have wealthy people here," she said.
"Come on guys. This is about democracy,” said Dr Merja Myllylahti.