A Dismal Failure By All Concerned

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The proposal by Warner Bros. Discovery to shut Newshub highlights the dismal failure past and present by successive New Zealand governments, bureaucracy and those in the screen sector to grasp the seismic changes that have flowed through our wider industry across the last twenty years, exacerbated in large measure by the global tech giants and streamers, particularly in the last ten.

A large part of the responsibility, in my view, lies with the neoliberal economic reforms brought about by the Rogernomics Labour Government of the 1980s.

New Zealand’s commitment to free trade from both sides of the political spectrum was firmly cemented in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs (GATT). We were so determined to open up markets for our agricultural produce and flush with success when the Round concluded in 1994, that we paid scant attention to the potential impact of free trade on our audio-visual and media sectors when we signed up to the General Agreement of Trade and Services (GATS) in 1995. New Zealand was one of only 13 countries that made market-opening commitments in the audio-visual sector, which includes ‘multimedia’ services. Australia negotiated a specific exception. Other countries like Canada and those of the European Union have exceptions like domestic content requirements, screen quotas, divestiture requirements, foreign ownership restrictions and other protectionist measures to ensure their cultures, their stories, and their screen sector and media businesses have an opportunity to adapt and survive in the face of intensifying global competition.

But no, not us.

We have for decades continued down the free market path. Even worse, when the writing was clearly on the wall for our screen and media businesses years ago, we had become so inculcated with a free market mentality that we did practically nothing. And still haven’t.

Our broadcasters and media companies have been screaming till they’re blue in the face that the global tech companies are sucking up all our domestic advertising revenue, making it increasingly unsustainable for them to operate. And the streamers are all getting in on the act now. Meanwhile, the streamers have so dramatically altered the landscape for film and television content that we are struggling to have our cultural voices heard.

While the global entities point to GATT, GATS  and the World Trade Organisation as justification for their right to dominate, we could still have changed our approach and it would have been accepted. But we didn’t. The former Labour Government’s proposed Fair Digital News Media Bargaining Bill and other protectionist measures are ten years too late. And the Bill is looking rather like a deceased feathered thing right now. The current government from the majority of their responses to the Newshub debacle seems relatively unconcerned, believing companies need to innovate to survive and that there are more than enough media voices about.

Meanwhile, international serviced production, the lack of financial support for domestic content creation and the blinkered approach by our screen sector including our funding bodies to identify, truly understand and rapidly adapt to the global shifts in our business, has those of us dependent on domestic production facing a future of dire uncertainty.

Leave it to Winnie to deliver that unexpected twist in the Newshub story: “A critical part of any democracy and free society is the fourth estate and an independent fourth state, and I am concerned about where we are going now,” he said.

I remember the excitement and energy that flowed through the industry when TV3 got going in Flower Street all those years ago. A lot of the people bubbling about the place were journalists but also included all those in the independent sector thrilled that somebody other than just TVNZ would be controlling their future.

It’s a sad day to see the likely demise of Newshub and the loss of the hundreds of jobs that will accompany it, and what it will mean for our democracy and our journalism.

It’s going to be even sadder when the impact of the Warner Bros. Discovery decision and others to come directly shake up our own little corner of the screen universe forever.

 

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director

Last updated on 29 February 2024