When watchdogs become lapdogs: Some New Zealand media in spotlight
By Thakur Ranjit Singh*
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their book, originally published in 1988, Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of mass media (2008), have put forward a model as a framework for gauging, analysing and understanding the functioning of the US media. Their concept, called the Propaganda Model, stipulates that media is not a free agent that the public have been made to believe. They challenge the myth that the press is stubborn, difficult, persistent and present everywhere as searchers and defenders of the truth. What they state through the Propaganda Model is that all facets of news are structured by the influence and consensus of the elite to ensure systematic propaganda. Effectively what they say is that the media serves and propagandises on behalf of those who control and finance them.
This is where the recent behaviour of Television New Zealand (TVNZ) and Media Works comes into question. Almost two months before the last elections, Prime Minister John Key hosted an hour-long show on September 30, 2011 on Radio Live. He declared that the show was an "election-free zone."
However, the Opposition, complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) and the Electoral Commission claiming that the show qualified it as an election advertisement because it was so close to the November 26, 2011 election. The ruling of the Electoral Commission was that despite statements that the show was an "election-free zone", Mr Key had associated himself with well-known people. In doing so, he took the opportunity to raise his personal profile unchallenged, and hence was likely to be seen to encourage people to vote for National Party under his leadership.
The then Labour leader Phil Goff accused Radio Live of granting special favours to John Key in exchange for Government’s decision to defer $43 million of licensing fees for Media Works, the owners of Radio Live and TV 3. He said it would have been a different situation if other leaders had been afforded the same opportunity. Goff said Radio Live had rejected the idea of allowing others to participate. The concentration of ownership of NZ media between Fairfax, Media Works and Government makes the picture murkier and give further credence to Propaganda Model.
In yet another media move that would raise concerns and controversy is a decision by TVNZ to dump the new Labour leader's weekly appearance on its Breakfast show. They were courteous in telling Labour leader David Shearer that he was not newsworthy and he did not have an automatic right to appear on the show, and would have to create news to appear on its show. It is a typical chicken and egg situation: how is he expected to create news without TV exposure?
Coming on the heels of Labour’s complaint about PM’s free election advertising on Radio Live reported above, some feel it is the government-owned station’s act of getting back at Labour for being a naughty boy. Its axing may be due to the Electoral Commission finding Prime Minister’s appearance on Radio Live breached the Broadcasting Act and the case being referred to police. This fiasco, apart from illustrating the act of Government broadcaster licking the hand that feeds it (government), also raises questions about whether the media should treat party leaders differently in their coverage. However, according to the Propaganda Model, TVNZ will look after the interests of its owner and financier - the government, and the Opposition (Labour Party) can go and jump.
Such expedient decisions by the media in pleasing the government are not only confined within New Zealand, but have gone abroad as well. This comes amidst allegation from Fiji Broadcasting Commission (FBC) that NZ government was blocking the newly established FBC TV from showing TVNZ news and features to Fijians.
FBC’s chief executive, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum (former TVNZ’s Asia Downunder reporter) said that while TVNZ Pacific Services were free of service across the Pacific, Fiji was denied permission for showing them to its people. All that was needed was any broadcaster to be given approval from TVNZ. However, reportedly two requests made last year by FBC TV had been rejected by TVNZ on the grounds that FBC TV was owned by government of Fiji. What defies sense or logic is that TVNZ itself is a government owned enterprise. And because of it being NZ Government owned, Khaiyum claims political pressures were exerted on TVNZ by Murry McCully’s Foreign Affairs Department not to grant the Fijians the approval to broadcast. According to what Khaiyum told Fiji Sun, this was confirmed by New Zealand High Commission’s Deputy Head in Suva, Peter Lund, who said that the directive of refusal came from New Zealand Foreign Affairs. Effectively, this was a case of a Government exerting its ownership powers to prevent dispersal of regional information in the Pacific region. TVNZ, as a supposedly free media organisation was merely dancing to the tunes of its owners and financiers, the New Zealand government. Khaiyum said the decision may only change with the change of government.
However, your truly is not holding his breath. The Labour party has been no different in its treatment of Fiji. Just the players change, the game rules remain the same. In the meantime, people are getting used to the high standards and quality of TV services from the English service of Al Jazeera from Doha in Qatar. It is similar to the case of another Arab enterprise, Emirates Airlines, increasingly taking foot in the traditional Australasian market.
The cases above illustrate that Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model stipulated over two decades ago still holds current in New Zealand. In this developed First World, some media still continue to be sympathizers and mouthpiece of — and jump to the tunes of — those who finance them. In doing so, they abandon their watchdog roles to become lapdogs.
[Endnote: The author graduated with Masters in Communication Studies (MCS) with Honours from Auckland University of Technology (AUT) last year. His research topic was: The 2000 Speight coup in Fiji: an analysis of the role of The Fiji Times and the impact of partisan media. The research is available at the following site:
The research revealed that the Propaganda Model of media was also in play during 2000, leading to Speight coup in Fiji.]
* Thakur Ranjit Singh is a media commentator, a community worker and CEO of Media Relations Limited, a media promotions, event management, public relations and communications company based in Auckland. email@example.com