Just a very quick note about something I missed last month: the Pantograph Punch’s interview with my hero Nicky Hager, the greatest, wisest and most selfless investigative journalist I know. Hager wasn’t speaking explicitly about the Leveson inquiry – his comments follow a Bruce Jesson memorial lecture he gave in October – but he is, as interviewer Matt Harnett says, “a prophet of radical transparency”.
So what would Hager make of Leveson’s “independent self-regulation”, a model whose oxymoronic name alone should ring warning bells? Well, the most significant omission is that Leveson never even questions the capitalist production model, where information – any information, however it’s obtained – is merely the means to acquire profit rather than a public service in itself. Hager on the other hand is happy to challenge this.
It’s easy to look at the quality of some mainstream media and think, ‘well, good riddance.’ But I think that would be a terrible mistake. First of all, there is nothing on the internet that has shown a sign of replacing the basic, daily provision of news, as opposed to the provision of comment, which blogs and things do. The other thing is the internet is an extremely siloed place. We’d be a completely different society if the left-leaning people went to one site, and the right-leaning people went to another, and people who were interested in sport went to a place that didn’t have any politics at all, and so on, and people weren’t seeing the same stuff. That, to me, is quite separate from what we might say about the quality of mass media. There’s a huge value in people seeing the same stuff – people knowing what is happening with that building down the road? And how did the Prime Minister defend themselves when someone said such-and-such, and all that daily business that binds us together in being a society. The internet shows no signs of replacing that – in fact, the opposite. That’s why I’m a strong advocate for publicly-funded but independent news media, of a mass-media type. It’s the most hopeful economic model for the future of media.
Do you think the kind of system we’ve got in New Zealand, where we’ve got state-owned enterprises —
I think that’s an abomination. In a way it’s almost the worst model you could have. What we need is a really strong statutory independence. People who think that a public media will inevitably bend to the government are not remembering that we also have, for example, the courts, and we have institutions of government, like the ombudsmen and auditor general, who can be a huge pain to the government, but still have their independence. Something like that is needed.
I get the impression you’re saying that the fourth estate should be similar to the judiciary in a modern democracy — sacrosanct, on some other level.
We know that, but we leave it in the hands of private organizations. The way that this has become acute is with the increasing public use of the internet; the competition for the news media is not between the New Zealand Herald and TV3, it’s between the New Zealand Herald and Facebook, and TradeMe, and YouTube, which can take advertising which once was monopolised by the media. Two things happen: one is that the advertising isn’t there, and the other is that you get people who measure the clicks on stories in their news organizations and get into a competitive entertainment mode, rather than a news media mode.