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Media collaboration good news for ratepayers

Media collaboration good news for ratepayers

It is good news for ratepayers that New Zealand’s media giants have joined forces to set up a special team to ensure coverage of local council activities, according to a Massey University journalism academic.

Dr Cathy Strong says the new journalism positions will help ensure openness and democracy prevail, something which has been lacking in some areas around the country.

“This is a rare situation where broadcasting, newspapers and online news have worked together to ensure a particular segment of our democratic institutions are getting public scrutiny,” Dr Strong says. “It shows how important the workings of local councils is to our democracy.”

Radio New Zealand, NZ on Air and the Newspaper Publishers Association, which covers print news outlets such as Stuff and NZME newspapers, announced they will employ eight journalists to report local authority activities and share their news stories to all media outlets. The first-year costs will be covered by a Government innovation fund.

Dr Strong says some councils continue to operate in secrecy, meaning the public isn’t aware of the discussions that happen around important decisions, and especially major spending.

“There is no transparency and we don’t know if their spending takes into account the needs of diverse communities or powerless segments of their districts. This is ensured when discussions take place in public and, through the media, all parts of the community can point out any flaws in the councils’ plans,” she says.

“This continued secrecy is appalling when councils spend billions of dollars each year that is mainly collected from average people through property rates.”

A recent Auditor General report predicted over the next few years councils will be spend an estimated at $54.5 billion on capital expenditures.

“Some councils dismiss public scrutiny as only NIMBY – Not in My Back Yard – but, in many cases, it is actually KWIMBY – Knowing What Is in My Back Yard,” Dr Strong says.

“Often a council doesn’t realise how a project is going to affect others until it is pointed out by the public. People want to know what is going on in their neighbourhood so they can support improvements – and avoid disasters.”

Dr Strong says ratepayer groups around the country report expensive, flawed decisions made by councils because the discussions were held in private. Some councils call the discussions ‘workshops’ so they escape the open meeting laws, and others prevent their elected members from exposing contrary views to the media.

“Many groups report that average residents have discovered expensive mistakes, but there are no local journalists to make the information more public, or to put the media spotlight on problems, she says. “Having journalists on the ground keeping a professional eye on local authorities will ensure better decision making.”

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