Monday, April 13, 2015

The show can't go on

Discussions about the state of our media have come more and more to resemble that old joke that Woody Allen used in Annie Hall:
“The food here is terrible.”
“Yes, and the portions are so small!”
We complain about the quality of our journalism and simultaneously about its dwindling state. Less often, when we stand to lose a genuinely good show – such as Campbell Live can be – the reaction may seem less incongruous, but then it too quickly morphs into a sort of nostalgia for the present time, when in spite of everything we still have (or, very soon, had) at least one prime-time current affairs programme that isn’t total shit.

So many of the campaigns and struggles around which what’s left of the Left can broadly unite these days are rear-guard in nature, and as such aspire for little, or seek to preserve what until yesterday some of us wanted to leave behind. Say, an economic system that provides a modicum of job security without a meaningful share of the national wealth; or a BBC-style national broadcasting system founded on myths of neutrality and objectivity that most people have long-since stopped believing in.

Yet it is reasonable – important, even – to point out where we are relative to where we used to be, if only because the current iteration of economic liberalism promised to achieve old goals with new means. Thus, to stay with the previous two examples, general prosperity without workers’ rights, or public-service information on a private-profit basis. In this respect one of the most significant moments of this past week was hearing Mediaworks’ chairman Rod McGeoch make the following admission to Matt Nippert and Phil Taylor:
We put news on, but only because it rates. And we sell advertising around news. This is what this is all about.
This would almost sound acceptable if the state-owned channel had any more of an obligation to provide the news as the only other national channel does. But since this is not the case, a suitable response might be to take Mr McGeoch’s frequencies away and see how he likes that particular crate of apples. Which of course requires political will, and possibly an appetite for TPP-style international litigation. But this is where we are at, and it should bother us that it took a corporation’s chairman to state it so clearly.

This Julie Christie, who hastened my sexual awakening by an estimated 16 weeks, is offered in lieu of the one who is currently Head of Firing John Campbell at Mediaworks

Used as I still am to how some things work in the old country, I have not ceased to be struck over the last few months by the lack of a united voice of journalists throughout a series of events that have profoundly affected their industry. Where is their union? Do they even have one? I know, technically it’s the EPMU, and they put out the odd release during Dirty Politics, but nothing at the level and with the visibility that one might have expected in other countries in such tumultuous times. In particular, the lack of apparent solidarity towards Nicky Hager last year and John Campbell and his staff this year has been staggering.

I have no moralising intent: workers do not organise when their working conditions prevent them from organising; workers do not speak when they are gagged. I expect this to apply to journalists as much as to any other category, and more broadly as a country we suffer from this enforced silence. So much so I’m sometimes tempted to call it (with dramatic flourish) omertà, as if it were a code on which the survival of too many depended. But the more prosaic reality is that if you are an intellectual – therefore a person likely to have first-hand knowledge of how the media industry interacts with the public service and other centres of power – you’re also likely to hold down a job that prevents you not just from speaking out, but from speaking at all. And when the topic that can’t be discussed by those closest to it is how to sustain a critical public discourse, it spells a special kind of trouble for a society.

Given the state of things as acutely summarised by Mr McGeoch, I struggle to follow the debate on how much further the commercial model might take us, or credit the suggestion – straight out of Peter Pan – that Campbell Live will not be cancelled so long as we all promise to watch it more often. We won’t be saved by being better consumers, nor would things be significantly better if our business leaders were less short-sighted and awful. We have tasked the wrong people with solving this problem, and as we watch them extracting a diminishing profit from our desperate need for information, we had better come up with alternatives.

Some of these alternatives are staring us in the face, for the same government that kept bailing out Mediaworks could have taken the opportunity to ask itself: ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ and ‘What am I getting in return?’ But today the Prime Minister has stated again that the conditions for public discourse are none of his business, days after one of his most junior charges saw fit to greet the demise of Campbell as a victory for team Hosking and the forces of good.

Reconstructing basic notions of the public good beyond petty and bloody-minded partisanship – for Labour’s record is hardly any better – is one of the tasks. But a bigger one is to imagine what a diverse, inclusive, critical journalism might look like, how to allow journalists to be central to this conversation, and what we need to do to make it happen before the plates of terrible food disappear altogether.

And yes, in the meantime we really ought to save Campbell Live if we can.


Ben Wilson said...

I struggle to follow the debate on how much further the commercial model might take us, or credit the suggestion – straight out of Peter Pan – that Campbell Live will not be cancelled so long as we all promise to watch it more often. We won’t be saved by being better consumers, nor would things be significantly better if our business leaders were less short-sighted and awful.

Yup, I struggle too. For me, Campbell Live is like an important exhibit at the War Memorial Museum. I rarely go, having been many times, and not much changing. Even when I go, I don't always visit the same exhibits. If they said they were removing one of the more iconic exhibits (the Holocaust room, say) just because enough people weren't looking at it, and were going to put a brief history of McDonalds in NZ there instead, I'd be bitter, but I doubt my retail behavior (especially since I get in for free) would have an effect, and I'd be unwilling to commit much time to change that.

what we need to do to make it happen before the plates of terrible food disappear altogether.

Yup, just because I don't go to the local soup kitchen for my dinner doesn't mean I don't think it's a righteous thing to be there.

But it's not the right analogy, because the people at this soup kitchen aren't starving. They're not even too poor to buy food. They just got into this habit of taking the freebie and then having a communal whine about how shit it is, but at least the guy pouring the soup isn't a stupid bigot like at the other soup kitchen next door. You could walk past them every day and tell them for 10c they could have a lovely buffet around the corner and they still won't actually try it.

Gianfranco said...

I am seeing the same patterns as in my old country, but there I knew it was done for personal interest, for saving ones ass from jail and standard corruption. What I don't understand in NZ is if this is really done just for neoliberal ideology. Of course there's something more than that, but isn't in that case all of society omertosa?

Giovanni Tiso said...

It's a complex issue but on the whole the restraints on public criticism in most professions are much stricter than back home, and combined with the smaller population - thus smaller and weaker civil society associations - it makes for a country in which it can be next to impossible to speak out on many issues.

Anonymous said...

The situation we are now in is absolutely the result of neoliberal ideology. Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble engineered the situation we are in today, and unfortunately Helen Clark's Labour government took far too long and did far too little to redress the situation. The charter and TVNZ7 were easily dispensed with when the Nats got back into power.
I wistfully think about the 1980s at art school, when we complained that the 90 minute, advert free, arts programme 'Kaleidoscope' was moved from Sunday night to Friday night (pub night).
There was also a lot of crap on TV during the 1980s but at least there were documentaries, current affairs and arts programmes on during prime time, and 2 nights a week were advert free.
Have a look at clip 5 of '50 Years of NZ TV' to see what happened.

Barry Thomas said...

It is interesting that on Saturday I posted this and tagged a couple of media friends... incl. you Giovanni... which led to this front page in the dom post..., worksafe NZ investigation et al...

and as a weird turnup... It seems to me John Campbell has been gagged to not investigate his own demise!!!

Giovanni Tiso said...

Your Facebook post didn't "lead to" the front page. I'm not very sure what point you're making here.

Barry Thomas said...

How would you know that? Were you texting/ receiving phone calls from Tom Hunt in response to me tagging him? oh no that was me!

The point is - I made the effort to not be silenced by my own vested interests and publicly called the employment laws of the Key Government to account...

Now Peter Jackson's employment mechanics are under very serious investigation... hopefully less hours worked, safer conditions will result

Giovanni Tiso said...

Sorry, it's just that the link to the Tom Hunt story was already in the status when I saw it - did you amend it later? Anyway, glad the story got the publicity it deserved, still not terribly sure about the connection to Campbell Live but it will come to me.

Barry Thomas said...

I also tagged Helen Kelly - (she is in the Tom Hunt story :-) saying what I said in my FB post... at either extreme zero hours or work till you cut your hand off regimes are how employment relations are now in NZ... from the other end of the employment law spectrum to Campbell I did something about it... the incident happend thurs night, I heard the news from an insider friend friday night - was communicating with Tom when I posted it sat morning. they published monday morning... yesterday I added an edit to my original post to include the dompost link.

My other point is - it seems to me Campbell are keeping very mum on their own position... I have been out of TV shot for a few days - have I missed something?

Barry Thomas said...


Phil said...

The real question to be asked is, what on earth has happened to our state broadcaster? Its a total disgrace.