Peter Allan Williams

Writer and broadcaster for half a century. Now watching from the sidelines although verbalising thoughts on three days a week

In an industry never afraid to report on itself it’s no surprise that this Sunday’s (taxpayer funded) Q and A on TV1 is addressing the matter of how media can survive in 2024 and beyond, and probably what a future media landscape in New Zealand will look like.

I know this because I was one of the people interviewed for the story, along with founder of The Platform and my old Magic Talk colleague, Sean Plunket. No doubt others with some relevant experience will feature too.

If the tenor of questions I received from experienced reporter Whena Owen is anything to go by, this may be a balanced story, one where “both sides of the story”  are told.

She asked about why listeners would want to log in to  Reality Check Radio (RCR), an online broadcaster with which I have had some association.

I told her that the recent survey on media trust, which showed only a third of the country’s population believed our media had credibility, suggested there is a perception that views contrary to an accepted narrative on some contentious issues are not aired or published on most media outlets.

Therefore when it comes to matters regarding climate change, the Treaty of Waitangi principles and race relations, the Covid response and the transgender debate there is no opportunity for those with non-conforming views to have their say.

Hence the rise of RCR where such views can be espoused, even if they’re often arrogantly dismissed as “conspiracy theories” or Plunket’s dismissive “rabbit-hole radio.”

(To their credit, both RNZ and Newstalk ZB have today, April 11, both reported in a balanced way on the Cass report in the UK which demolished the entire basis for the model of treating gender-distressed children and led to the banning of puberty blockers there.)

I reminded Ms Owen of my early days in television in the late 1970s when our biggest ongoing news story  was sporting contact with apartheid South Africa, especially through rugby,

It was an issue which literally divided the population and culminated in the tumultuous 1981 Springbok tour here.

But the key point about the reporting of the issue during that period was while strident anti-tour protesters like John Minto and Trevor Richards were prominent faces in news bulletins during those years, so were PRO-tour supporters like rugby administrator Ron Don and the former All Black who was Police Minister at the time, Ben Couch.

I’m almost certain the likes of Don and Richards faced off in a live TV debate on the issue at least once.

So the broadcast news media of the time – dominated by state owned television and radio –  as well as the influential newspapers like the New Zealand Herald,  the Auckland Star, The Dominion, the Evening Post, The Press and the ODT covered the issue in depth and were never afraid to report the views from both sides of the debate.

Whena Owen seemed genuinely surprised that differing opinions on such a difficult issue were so often in the media of 45 years ago.

Contrast that to today.

In 2019 Stuff took the unilateral decision to no longer report views questioning the basic thesis that increased levels of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere cause significant changes in the world’s climate.

Virtually all other media have subsequently taken the same path.

Yet a new production Climate The Movie:The Cold Truth suggests there is still plenty of credible science around to suggest we are not in any sort  climate emergency and that we have little to fear from more extreme weather events.

Because of modern technology Climate The Movie will be readily available to anybody with an internet connection. But will mainstream media bother with challenging or debating, or even airing, some of the issues raised in the 80 minute film?

Almost certainly, no.

And those in the media industry wonder why they have lost the trust and interest of the vast majority of their potential audience?

Climate change is just one topic where coverage of the issue lacks real balance.

Rational discussion about principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and the anger felt by thousands about Covid mandates are two more. Both matters have had their time in the sun on the new online broadcast outlets.

But RCR and The Platform are both seat-of-the-pants, smell-of-an-oily-rag type of operations.

I don’t know how much Plunket can pay his people but I imagine it will be much less than what they earned in previous media appointments.

Not that it mattered, but my RCR fees equated to about five percent of what I had been earning at Magic Talk, but I was prepared to help out during their early days in the hope they could gather some traction. I no longer have any regular commitments there.

That 350,000 unique users logged in at one time or another in the last year suggests some inroads were made by RCR, but cash flow always remained a problem. Hence the current pause in operations and the marketing video doing the rounds trying to establish an ongoing and sustainable model.

Among all the self-examination that has occurred in recent times since the Newshub and TVNZ announcements, there’s been little discussion about how non-government owned media companies can remain successful in the new digital world.

The realities have to be based on  a subscription model.

It’s actually nothing new. We’ve been paying for newspapers for over a hundred years. Sky has been our most profitable TV company for most of the last twenty years.

Maybe the most extraordinary success has been the Christian radio company Rhema.

It started broadcasting in 1978, now operates three nationwide networks – Rhema, Life and Star – and reputedly has 17,000 subscribers paying a dollar a day. That’s about six million in annual revenue.

Whether small outfits like RCR and The Platform can continue to exist depends on how they can best tap into their niche audiences in the way Rhema has.

But with today’s technology making it very easy to produce and distribute high quality audio and video content through the internet, competition is fierce for the subscriber dollar.

Factor in organizations like Family First, the Taxpayers Union and the Free Speech Union all chasing donations, and producing podcasts as well, and the market becomes crowded. That’s just on the conservative spectrum. One imagines the same exists across the political divide.

As it should be in a fair market, only the quality product will survive.

Legacy or mainstream media have had their glory days. Whether they can reinvent themselves as more nimble models in the digital future is a question only they can answer.

But unless they can regain audience trust the current struggles seem destined to continue. Some reflection on their story telling techniques is well overdue.

I wonder if Whena Owen will reach the same conclusion on Q and A this weekend?

 I’ll watch with interest.

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