Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

Article excerpt

Martin Hirst, Sean Phelan and Verica Rupar (eds.) (2012) Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland. AUT Media.

Reviewed by Graham Murdock

The media occupy a central place in democratic theory .They are expected to provide the comprehensive information, rigorous analysis, open debate, and investigation of abuses of power , that help translate nominal rights of political participation into principled engagement. How far they are able or willing to deliver these core cultural resources is increasingly open to question however. Newspapers are closing, public service broadcasting is under intensified pressure, investigative journalism is being cut back. These general tendencies are particularly evident in New Zealand which has seen steadily accelerating media consolidation and the cancellation of the last remaining general purpose public service television channel. This collection draws together commentators with a wide range of experience and expertise to reflect on this situation.

Wayne Hope's opening chapter provides a very useful historically informed account of the New Zealand experience .In drawing on Habermas's celebrated narrative of the rise and fall of the public sphere and the process of 'refedualisation' he rightly pays particular attention to New Zealand's vanguard role in implementing neo-liberal polices and the subsequent corporate colonisation of the media system. This synoptic overview is supplemented and extended by Peter Thompson's carefully argued analysis of the troubled career of public broadcasting policy in New Zealand. This successfully combines his characteristic conceptual creativity with the insider view gained as chair of the working party that reviewed public submissions as part of the TVNZ Charter Review to produce one of the clearest and best informed accounts of the process that we have. Both these contributions are important statements on central issues and both merit a wide readership.

The ways the changing media environment impacts on the organisation and practices of journalism are reviewed in a cluster of chapters written by working reporters or editors and former practitioners turned academics. Nicky Hager, one of New Zealand's best known investigative journalists, points up the increasing imbalance in the resources commanded by journalists and public relations operatives and the resulting 'trend for journalists to stop being gatherers of news and instead to be processors of all the material coming from 'communications staff'' Reviewing the history of parliamentary coverage and drawing on interviews with journalists, Margie Comrie, details how the resort to increasingly professional techniques of news management by politicians , coupled with intensified commercial pressures, has engendered an increasingly cynical style of political reporting that erodes the informed deliberation at the heart of the democratic process. Moving from news to features, Finlay Macdonald, who edited New Zealand's leading weekly the Listener, and was frequently accused by critics of presiding over an 'overtly liberal or left-wing organ' points out that in a commercial operating context features on lifestyle, food and travel, together with entertainment profiles and crime coverage were always 'as vital to the editorial mix as campaigning journalism with a political edge'. Even so, the magazine's loss of almost 15,000 circulation in a decade marks a significant contraction in the audience for critical commentary.

The difficulties of sustaining critical journalism revealed by these accounts is forcefully underlined by a series of contributions detailing patterns of coverage. Donald Matheson utilises a content analysis of the news reporting of international affairs in the press and television to reveal a persistent neo colonial structure with 'an enormous skew towards the US and the UK ', poorer countries of the world confined to near invisibility, and coverage of their affairs, when it does surface, centred on a narrow, and entirely predictable, range of topics. …