The New Zealand media is like “a junkyard dog”, sometimes ferocious but with a short attention span, according to Otago University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards.
Giving an Institute for Governance and Policy Studies lecture, Edwards discussed his report on the media for the New Zealand National Integrity Assessment, an exercise that looks at the transparency and integrity of public life.
Different surveys of the media gave different results, he noted. While New Zealand ranked in the top ten in the Reporters Without Borders survey of press freedom, a recent poll of New Zealanders showed the country as one of only four countries out of 107 where the media was regarded as one of the most corrupt institutions.
With such different results, it was “hard to see where the truth lies”, he said.
However, for the integrity assessment, he had spoken to “experts and industry” as well as reviewing academic writing on the New Zealand media, and had given it scores out of five on a range of issues:
For providing a variety of perspectives – 2/5. The media lacked diverse ownership and ideologies, and was dominated by four media companies. Being “the most liberalised media market in the world” meant there was little regulation to encourage diverse ownership.
For safeguards against external interference in reporting – 4/5. The ‘Teapot tapes’ saga notwithstanding, the media generally escaped political interference.
For accountability of the media – 3/5. Mechanisms such as the Broadcasting Standards Authority existed, but were “complex and outdated”.
For provisions to ensure the integrity of reporters – 2/5. The industry had no sector-wide code of ethics, and conflicts of interest did not have to be disclosed.
For investigating and exposing corruption – 4/5. The media were “extremely vigilant about the abuse of power or other improprieties”, even to the point of sometimes “exaggerating” the level of corruption. Investigative journalism, however, lacked funding.
In total, he gave the media a ranking of 66 points from a possible 100. But feedback from the audience at the lecture – made up partly of academics, public sector workers and some media representatives – indicated that even that relatively low score was too generous.
Summing up, Edwards said the media was perhaps neither a watchdog nor the lapdog of politicians but “a junkyard dog … the media is more about infotainment, an increasing focus on the trivial and the scandalous.
“The media is not so much about protecting politicians [as some claim]. It’s about ratings, it’s about the tyranny of ratings and profits. That leads to a focus on the gaffes of politicians. The media is not reverent towards politicians.”