I have to disagree with my mate Rumi. I don’t think the media are our friends and I’d rather they weren’t. Rather, I think the media should be reporting on matters in the public interest without fear or favour. Dull, I know.
Having said that, I don’t think that the media is part of a Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. I simply think the system in which they work is fundamentally flawed, resulting in a media that can no longer function as the fourth estate. Here’s why:
- The media is in the business of… business
No, I’m not suggesting the New Zealand media is in the pocket of big business, even though, in fact, it is big business. But I don’t think what we may perceive as bias arises from corporate overlords telling reporters what to report (I like to think that News International is a special case). Instead, I think that our major media outlets have a conflict of interest. They’re trying to do two competing jobs: informing the public; and making money. These require very different approaches. Informing the public requires detailed reporting, in-depth evaluation, accurate synthesis of complicated ideas. Making money, on the other hand…
Making money requires viewers
Unless you’re the Guardian. Media outlets have to sell advertising to pay the bills. Advertisers pay more when more people see their adverts. And, as a general rule, viewers don’t enjoy detailed reporting. Viewers enjoy conflict. Viewers enjoy scandal. Viewers enjoy infotainment (that’s you #SevenSharp).
So how does an ambitious reporter keep the viewers tuned in? Manufactured conflict. We saw it from Corin Dann the other day when he started the, now mainstream, narrative that the Greens have given up on Labour. Come on Corin – the Greens want to pick up wavering National Party voters, it makes sense to let these potential voters know that the Greens could work with National. Instead, our intrepid reporter chooses to report it as a rift between the Greens and National. Not because it makes the most sense, but because it’s more interesting. Subtlety
- Businesses are hierarchical – those at the top select and lead those below
To be clear, I am in no way suggesting a conspiracy. This is something much more incidental. In my experience, people tend to hire staff whose view of the world aligns with their own. It’s more subtle than John Galt type choosing employees who share their Randian fantasy of the world. Instead, it’s the simple reality that we share an affinity with those who see the world the same way that we do. Are we surprised that media corporations foster a corporatist view of the world?
- The media is made up of humans – they can be petty
The media, when attacked, sometimes chooses to respond in kind. When Judith Collins attempted to defend her mate Murray McCully by attacking Katie Bradford (4 May 2014), the media fought back, with a story that they’d clearly been saving up for a rainy day. Two days later (6 May 2014), Cabinet Ministers got a grilling about a practice that had been going on for years – “Cabinet Club”. I highly doubt the timing was coincidence. Tova and co had seen their friend and colleague used as a pawn in a political attack – they responded. Personally, I thought the reporting on Cabinet Club was important, but I didn’t like the way that it was used. This wasn’t about speaking truth to power, this was about settling scores.
Is there an answer? I’m not sure, but I think we can do better. You see, I’ve recently returned from the UK and I’ve seen a better way. Interestingly, this better way was something that we once shared with the British – public broadcasting. Publicly funded media provides the space to report without having to think about the bottom line. They don’t have to deliver content-poor populist drivel, because they aren’t required to make money.
The BBC isn’t perfect, but it’s a darn sight better than what’s on offer in New Zealand.