Mainstream Media Don’t Have A Monopoly On Freedom Of The Press

There has been a great deal of reporting over the past week or two on a story involving two journalists being photographed meeting a former NZ First party president amid the alleged leaking of confidential party records to those same journalists. These photos were then published on a blog site called “The BFD”, which is widely believed to be the successor to the notorious “Whale Oil” site run by Cameron Slater, the son of a former National Party president.

The BFD is one of a number of sites which are outside of the mainstream media as we know them. The mainstream media appears to consist largely of private companies such as Stuff, NZME and Allied Press, and the government owned Radio NZ and TVNZ. But over the years, it’s been inevitable that people have questioned the commercial imperatives, especially of the private media businesses. One of the journalists concerned in the above mentioned story has worked mainly with the public sector TVNZ/RNZ whilst the other is employed by Stuff.

The real concern especially with privately owned commercial media which is well founded and justified is that they have their political imperatives at play in choosing how to run a story and that these imperatives are largely concealed from the public and not open or accountable. This explains and justifies the rise of alternative media. Whilst TVNZ and Radio NZ may be state owned, they have become more commercial in focus and it’s openly questionable whether, with a Board appointed by a Crown Minister, they actually are able to have editorial independence or are in fact liable to be steered down a particular political direction according to whichever Government happens to be in power.

The BFD is similar to its left-wing equivalents that include the likes of The Standard and The Daily Blog. Following these sites will give a much greater picture of public events than the mainstream media alone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow the mainstream media as such but we should be totally aware that mainstream journalism often has specific commercial or political imperatives at play (as do the independent sites, of course). In this case the biggest concern is that these imperatives would see this particular story presented in a classically political way, strung out over a period of time to ensure that the political damage to the NZ First Party can be milked for as long as possible and for the maximum amount of market share and financial return, right up to election time.

As commentators on The BFD and other major blogs have opined, the howls of outrage from the mainstream media organisations and journalists involved with this story are just so much sanctimonious claptrap. It seems to have tied up the Stuff website in particular with story after story condemning the taking and publishing of the photos. But in a space where rank commercial and even political considerations influence the editing and publishing of a news story, without independent verification, we cannot actually be particularly sure that the public interest outweighs all other considerations. Nor can we be exactly sure what the definition of “public interest” actually is. There certainly seem to be plenty of times when the “public interest” happens to be politically convenient for one or more political parties or causes and much less so to others.

We have no great reason to like the NZ First party or any of the other political parties that have been associated with this but it is becoming very clear that the MSM’s particular campaign over this issue has become very political in its own right and in and of itself risks compromise the alleged journalistic indepedence moral high ground that they are so fond of claiming to occupy. Many of their stories on this particular issue have mirrored Opposition party attack lines in demanding the other Government coalition parties must rein in NZ First. This issue does seem to be a product of the nature of NZ First and how it is run, with less openness and accountability in that party compared to the others that are represented in Parliament, and some commentators questioning why the Prime Minister has not acted to address the fact that NZ First is now being investigated by the SFO, are right on the money. But the question is whether the MSM are truly independent in the nature of their reaction to this issue and whether they can be assumed to truly represent the public interest, and we are sceptical that they are capable of doing this all of the time.