Do We Value Journalism in New Zealand?

As John Campbell left the building after the last episode of Campbell Live he asked the question, “Do we value journalism and do we need to pay for it?”

The answer is yes and yes. New Zealanders do want to hear the stories that matter, and yes they do expect the government to pay for public broadcasting.

The idea of TVNZ being configured as an SOE required to make a profit via advertising and hand that over to the government is not something that the public were ever consulted on. Indeed, many people still probably don’t realize that is how it is required to operate.

But the issue is wider than that. In effect TVNZ, under the charter, is forced to act like a state owned enterprise (SOE). The public were not consulted about SOEs. SOEs are an ideological construct from the neoliberal era of the late 1980s. The Neoliberals in power couldn’t stomach anything not operating for profit. Nor could they stomach the idea that the rich should pay a higher tax rate than the rest of us. SOEs killed two birds with one stone. It meant that government enterprises had to make delivering a profit their key goal, instead of service to the public. And the revenue delivered to the government by way of dividends helped compensate for the loss of tax income when the top tax rates were lowered.

The chickens have now come home to roost. Campbell says, “It’s a tough tough time to be a journalist in New Zealand.” Ratings have become more important than telling us what we need to know. Because ratings determine advertising revenue which determines how much profit a network makes.

The same could be said of our other SOEs, for example KiwiRail, New Zealand Post, and those of our power companies that have not yet been sold off. They must also deliver a profit, so outsourcing overseas for rolling stock, reducing services for NZ Post, and higher than necessary power prices for domestic consumers are the result. As are massive job losses for New Zealand workers.

The idea that these organizations exist to provide a vital service to New Zealanders has been lost in the drive to make them profitable. Arguably our rail network is a biggest chance to reduce our carbon footprint, and even up imbalance that sees nearly all our businesses located in Auckland. Subsidized rail transport could see businesses relocate to other areas where there is sufficient affordable housing and infrastructure. It could see trucks used less for long haul transport, saving the environment and on roading maintenance.

Providing electricity at cost, or even subsidized, means everyone could afford to heat their homes, saving on healthcare costs. The more New Zealanders who are employed in our SOEs, the less money paid out in unemployment benefits, accommodation subsidies, etc, and the more money spent in local businesses and the greater the tax take for the government.

John Campbell is right, we do need as a country to have a discussion; but let’s widen it to include more than public broadcasting and journalism. Let’s look at things we need for the common good of all New Zealanders, the things the government by and large funds or should fund, and designate them ‘not for profit’.

The SOE model, the idea that the government can earn a dividend from essential services, is an anachronism; a product of discredited neoliberal economics. It has done enormous harm to our country. Throw it out for good. There is no part of it that can, or should, be recycled. And bring back Campbell Live – on TV One.