Former Broadcasting Minister Melissa Lee between Southland MP, Joseph Mooney and Police Minister, Mark Mitchell at last year's National Party conference

It is hard to see what Melissa Lee might have done to “save” the media.

National went into the election with no public media policy and appears not to have developed one subsequently.

Lee claimed that she had prepared a policy paper before the election but it had been decided not to release it.

Beyond that, her few public utterances as broadcasters began to shed jobs and news programmes closed were restricted to implying that the market would somehow sort itself out.

During her years in Opposition, that seemed to be her standard answer to anything in the media space.

Her actions contrasted with those of Jonathan Coleman, who, after becoming a media spokesperson in the early 2000s when National was in Opposition, set about an extensive interrogation of the industry.

He spent a day with my production company, Front Page, questioning staff, making extensive notes and getting to understand the complexities of an independent company trying to produce high-end current affairs under contract to broadcasters driven by maximising their mass market audiences.

He consulted widely across the industry and understood it well enough so  that within five months of the Key Government being formed, he was able to introduce the NZonAir Platinum Fund, which redefined existing Government “Charter” funding for TVNZ.

It was a bold move.

“By encouraging competition for quality, the contestable Platinum Television Fund will ensure the best ideas get supported regardless of which channel broadcasts them,” he said at the time.

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In a statement which typified the Key Government’s approach to many policy areas, he was ambitious for what the fund might achieve.

“The Platinum Fund is being ring-fenced off from NZ On Air’s other funding to specifically support content which may currently be difficult to find on our screens and which requires a high level of subsidy to be made.

“We want this funding to really make a difference to what we see on our television screens, not just to fund more of the same content we are already getting.”

Lee did not do that level of groundwork before the election.

Whatever her policy paper might have said remains a mystery, but for an industry that is ultimately built on gossip, there were no rumours, rumbles, or prognostications about it buzzing around the traps.

That might suggest that whatever it said was unremarkable,

Clare Curran, as Opposition spokesperson during the Key years, undertook a similar exercise to Coleman and, ironically, given the view of the leader of the party on media, it was left to New Zealand First’s Jenny Marcroft to produce the only comprehensive alternative broadcasting policy before the last election.

She (or more probably the leader, Winston Peters) wanted a Royal Commission into Media Independence, but that was to be backed up with a strengthened role for Radio New Zealand, tax concessions for media subsidies, enhanced training schemes aimed at creating diversity within the media workforce and enabling mergers of media companies to proceed.

ACT did not have a policy.

However, running through the-then Opposition parties’ comments on the media before the election was the claim that media outlets had been “bribed” by the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, which required support for the idea that the Treaty of Waitangi involved a partnership between Maori and the Crown.

A controversial aside to the policy itself was a handbook that asserted that Maori had never conceded sovereignty over New Zealand.

Critics of the scheme reached out to the Trump campaign in the United States and borrowed its extensive use of the phrase “mainstream media” as a pejorative term.

Peters, who has long criticised the media, was only too happy to jump on that bandwagon.

During his recent State of the Nation speech, journalists working on a media bench at the back of the room were surrounded by his supporters who chanted “liars” at them during the speech.

Peters’ media staff, realising the mood of the room, shifted his post-speech press conference away from the public areas to somewhere more private to prevent it from being disrupted by the riled-up supporters.

Those suspicions of the media fund were given more ammunition with the publication of the media trust survey by the AUT journalism department.

That found that trust in the media in New Zealand was in the bottom half of the countries surveyed by the annual Reuters Institute trust survey.

New Zealand shared its 33 per cent trust with Anglo countries like Britain, the United States and Australia.

Non-Anglo-speaking countries, such as those in Scandinavia, Southeast Asia, or continental Europe, where public media are more dominant, had much higher levels of trust.

The Institute, in its trust survey report for 2023 said many criticisms of the media were less fair, coloured by political agendas and often forthrightly expressed by activists or special interest groups.

“ Political polarisation hasn’t helped, and many of our country studies carry examples of verbal abuse, coordinated harassment of individual journalists and independent media, and, in some cases, physical attacks against journalists.

“Looking across our entire dataset, we find a correlation between low trust and media criticism.”

Interestingly, trust in the media in the United States has increased now Trump has been replaced by President Biden, and the stream of abuse of the media from the White House has stopped.

Melissa Lee seemed ambiguous about her own position on trust.

At an Auckland Regional conference of the National Party in 2021, she presided over a session convened to discuss trust in the media and then invited journalists covering the event to present a defence.

The journalists declined, probably because the session itself was a relatively sympathetic exposition of the media’s challenges.

She sounded half-hearted in her reference to media trust during Parliament’s debate on the RNZ-TVNZ merger last year.

She asked, “How will the public trust this new entity to be a step removed from Government policy or the dictation of the Ministers to do whatever they actually want the media to do?”

“Where will that trust factor go? It is already down. I can’t imagine it getting any better as a result.”

But the trust argument is a sideshow.

The real issue confronting the media is that, as a whole, it has lost not just its audience but, importantly, advertising revenue to the internet, or, in the case of revenue, to Google.

According to the Advertising Standards Authority, internet advertising has increased from a 17 per cent share of all New Zealand advertising to 52.5 per cent in 2022 since the launch of the Ultra Fast Broadband Initiative in 2014.

A good hunk of that has been advertising placed through Google, which in 2022 paid an $870 million “service fee” to its American parent (but only $4.3 million in New Zealand tax).

Some major New Zealand advertisers have all but stopped advertising in New Zealand and are instead focusing all their advertising on international internet sites.

Noel Leeming and Air New Zealand are two companies untiil recently regularly featuring in lists of the industry’s top advertisers but are now absent. Instead, their advertising may be found on international websites.

POLITIK understands TVNZ has been particularly hard hit by the Air New Zealand retreat.

The answer from New Zealand’s media companies (Stuff and NZME) has been to propose legislation that would force Google to pay for news it runs in these searches.

But ultimately, the answer will be paywalls.

In a way, we used to have one for broadcasting. Until 1999, there was a universal broadcasting licence fee of $110 ($158 inflation adjusted).

More recently Sky has been able to persuade around one million New Zealanders to pay upwards of $45 to over $100 a month for its services.

Its 2022 income, mostly from those subs, was $378 million, while TVNZ got $327 million from advertising.

But Sky has no public broadcasting obligations.

None of these issues are new. The industry and those who follow it have seen them come into focus over the past ten years.

Despite that, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon maintained on Wednesday that he was firing Melissa Lee because there had been a significant change in the media environment and it had become much more complex.

That might be true in the short term, but behind every short-term event usually lies a long-term trend.

That is the case witb broadcasting and the media more generally and it is Melissa Lee’s apparent failure to convince her colleagues of that while they were in Opposition that has cost her job.