An Orwellian distortion of journalism

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
21 September, 2022

According to a quote sometimes attributed to George Orwell, “journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.”

Whether Orwell actually said it or not, it is a useful definition.

There are whole armies of PR and comms people trying to make you swallow their predetermined messages.

Good journalists do not start with a message but with a question.

This makes the New Zealand government’s “Public Interest Journalism Fund” (PIJF), set up in mid-2020, a questionable exercise. For local media to apply for a slice of the available NZ$55 million, they first need to sign up to supporting a list of political causes.

The standard funding agreement to access the PIJF contains a section titled “New Zealand Identity and Culture and Public Interest requirements”.

“You will use best endeavours to ensure all Content reflects and develops New Zealand identity and culture,” it states.

It then asks journalists to ensure, among other matters, that content “actively promotes the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi) acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner.”

If you are unfamiliar with New Zealand politics, this requirement may sound innocent. Who would object to good race relations? No-one, hopefully.

However, the wording makes it clear that the actual agenda goes well beyond an acknowledgment of the Treaty of Waitangi as an historic document of constitutional significance. It demands that journalists accept the government’s interpretation of the Treaty and then promote it actively.

The problem is that the meaning of the Treaty is a contemporary political issue, and there is more than one political interpretation. Therefore, the expressed requirement to take a side necessarily collides with journalists’ professional ethos, irrespective of their personal stance on the Treaty.

The government paying journalists only on the condition that they agree to spread the government’s message on the Treaty creates an obvious challenge for journalism in New Zealand.

The problem goes still deeper. That is because of the way in which Treaty-related issues now permeate so much of New Zealand public policy.

Whether it is health, education, water infrastructure, monetary policy, the management of the public service or policing, there are practically no areas left which do not have a Treaty component added to them.

For example, the Ministry of Education is preparing amendments to the school curriculum. In many cases, these changes are driven by a specific interpretation of the Treaty. Thus, the history curriculum is explicit about the need to stress colonialism and oppression of Māori. Even in mathematics, statistics and physics, concepts inspired by Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) have become prominent to fulfil perceived Treaty obligations.

Would a journalist, funded by the PIJF, be able to question this approach to teaching?

To take a different example, the government’s drug-buying agency Pharmac was previously tasked with achieving the best possible health outcomes for all New Zealanders, regardless of race.

Now the government has mandated Pharmac to prioritise Māori in its funding decisions. In other words, Māori will receive extra funding, not on the basis of need, but on the basis of their ethnicity.

This is meant to correct for systemic racism in the health system, which, the New Zealand government claims is a real problem.

Would a journalist, funded by the PIJF, be able to question Pharmac’s new drug-buying policy?

Perhaps these questions, though relevant, should be asked differently. A journalist funded by the PIJF may not even work on education or health policy. Say a reporter employed with funds from the PIJF works exclusively on local government stories that bear no relevance to any treaty-related issues. Would everything be fine then?

Unfortunately, the answer is still “No”.

The potential conflicts of interest created by the PJIF do not involve the funded journalists themselves as much as their employers. That is because the funding agreements are between the PIJF administrators and media companies, not individual journalists.

This compromises media companies that take the funding in two ways.

Suppose a media company concluded that the PJIF contract prevented them from reporting freely on some sensitive issue. That would limit their ability to fulfil their role as the fourth estate. It would reduce the ways in which they could hold those in power to account.

The second way accepting money from the PIJF could hurt media companies is even more insidious.

Imagine a media company that receives money from the PIJF but continues its work as usual. The company does not bow to the government’s agenda. It continues reporting as if it had never received any government funding.

Still, the fact money has been paid by the government to the media company, especially with the publicly known conditions, exposes the media company to criticism.

People will suspect a conflict of interest even if the media company plays completely straight.

Accepting the money limits a company’s credibility and makes it appear biased, even if it is not.

The PIJF, though it may have started with an intention to help journalism, has become a grave threat to the credibility of the New Zealand media. Companies taking the money are now exposed to accusations of being too close to government and of being bought to promote a certain agenda. And those accusations have been made.

This is largely the fault of the government. Had its PIFJ not prescribed which positions the media should take, the PJIF would have been much less controversial. It may have even been welcome.

However, the way it is set up, PIJF is incompatible with the basic ethics of journalism. It blurs the boundary between journalism and public relations. The government should never have done that.

It is understandable that New Zealand media organisations were eager to receive some extra help from the government, especially during the Covid lockdowns. And, as in most other countries, the media have been hard hit by loss of advertising revenue to the proliferation of alternative media channels on the internet.

But the New Zealand government is at fault for exploiting the media’s vulnerable position. The government offered money conditional on media giving up on the very principles that differentiate journalism from public relations.

An immediate way out of this would be for the government to unilaterally restate its support for the media. It should declare null and void any conditions attached to PIJF funding.

Otherwise, the government will continue to hurt the reputations of the media it purportedly set out to help. And that would be truly Orwellian.

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