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Liberty Belle in Cambridge, 4

Liberty Belle in Cambridge, 4

By Deborah Coddington

This week we Press Fellows had to present a seminar to invited students and other fellows, just in case, we were told, we were enjoying ourselves too much. The topic was “The Effects of Foreign Ownership on Local Media” with the other three press fellows taking the line that the effect was mostly negative, with local cultures and national identities being crushed by Americanisation – CNN, McDonalds, Microsoft, et cetera. I didn’t agree and went to the seminar fresh from reading an article by Phillippe Legrain in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This is what I said:

“I’m here because I have worked for much of my career as a feature writer at magazines published by an Australian company, ACP, owned by an Australian, Kerry Packer. The success of my serious, worthy, current affairs magazine, however, is that it is totally focused on New Zealand issues. There is absolutely nothing Australian about it. If there was, the readership would be considerably smaller and the advertising would follow suit. Kerry Packer would not have a clue what goes into ‘North & South’ magazine. I doubt he cares. Other magazines in New Zealand, and newspapers, are owned by multinationals – Rupert Murdoch, Tony O’Reilly, and there are a few successful independents. Television and radio media are owned by the government, by Sky, CanWest and various New Zealand companies.

New Zealand is a small country with very few wealthy people. If you earn over £20,000 you’re considered rich enough to be in the top tax bracket. There are very few people with money to invest in newspaper, book and magazine publishing so New Zealand depends on foreign investment. If we restrict that, we are denying shareholders their right to sell at the best price; employees the right to compete on an international scale for higher wages; consumers the chance to ‘trust’ a company financially and commit to a 12 or 24-month subscription.

Does this come at the expense of national identity? I’m not convinced, especially if we define media as that which influences the way we live and the way we think about ourselves. So I include not just newpapers, magazines and television but also radio, films, documentaries, books and music – and of course, the Internet.

Natural cultures are stronger than people seem to think. I prefer to think of globalisation as cross-fertilisation. In New Zealand I can watch French films, eat Japanese sushi, read my favourite magazine Atlantic Monthly published in the US, wear Levis jeans which were not originally American but invented by a German immigrant to the US who combined denim cloth woven in France with Genes, a style of trousers worn by Genoese sailors. I can listen to music on the radio as diverse as Kiri te Kanawa, a Maori, singing a Puccini aria, to Cesaria Evore from the Cape Verde Islands. Yet when I packed to come to Cambridge I brought with me New Zealand contemporary music, so in moments of late night homesickness, I can walk through your quintessential English streets and listen through earphones to Crowded House, Bic Runga, Split Enz, and others singing about Dominion Road, slow boats made of china on mantelpieces, rain falling from concrete-coloured skies, and taking weather with you. These are words you won’t understand but they connect me to my family and my city.

My father was born in London to Cockney Jews, and my mother is of Irish descent, but I am a New Zealander. I am different from you English. I am not ‘similar’ to an Australian. I am not a British colonial. I can embrace some foreign cultures and reject others. I would rather be exposed to this choice than have my government use legislation to halt global media giants at the New Zealand border, like they used to do just 20 years ago.

In any event that would now be a useless exercise. Think of the Internet – we look at webpages every day in our research and reading but are mostly unaware of their ownership. Neither do we care. I don’t feel my national identity is threatened every time I tap a word into Google, or use Microsoft Word.

As Nobel prize winner, Indian economist Amartya Sen said: “the culturally fearful often take a very fragile view of each culture and tend to underestimate our ability to learn from elsewhere without being overwhelmed by that experience.”

And do American so-called media tycoons who invest see our uniquely Kiwi characteristics as a threat to their perceived desire to ‘Americanise’ the world, as someone like Naomi Klein would have us believe in her emotional book, ‘No Logo’? Evidence points to the opposite. I proudly remind you of one of the greatest recent successes distributed by US global media giant AOL Time Warner – a movie based on a British book, with British cast, shot by a New Zealand director in the New Zealand landscape: “The Lord of the Rings”.

Anyway, what do we mean by our derogatory descriptions of ‘American’ or ‘British’ global giants? What are the national identities of those countries, if not a diverse mix of cultures, ethnicities, religions and lifestyles? In other words, millions of people who think of themselves are just that – individuals – not as some sort of stereotype of what their country’s ‘national identity’ is supposed to be.

We define ourselves, I think, not allow ourselves to be defined by others, least of all by our elected politicians who foist these regulations and charters upon us. It is highly ironic that those in the West boast about being modern and multicultural, tolerant and non-racist, yet seem to think that developing nations should not be allowed to be ‘tainted’ by influences from other cultures. Is this not simply another strain of anti-western, anti-liberal democracy rearing its ugly head again?

As Legrain pointed out in his article, do we have a right to force people in developing countries (and soon we may include New Zealand in that category) to lead an authentic, monocultural, unspoiled life in isolated poverty?

A self-confident culture is robust and resistant to being overwhelmed by the homogeneity of a larger, richer, more powerful nation. We should welcome their advances, not hunker down under our blankets of inferiority complex, congratulating ourselves we don’t need global interference thankyou very much, then stupidly letting the world leave us to our irrelevance.”

And to you, Liberty Belle readers, I would just add this: If New Zealand were once more that little country which, for one brief moment in time the rest of the world looked to as an example of economic freedom in the making, we could be justifiably proud of a lot more than our beautiful landscapes, relatively easy way of life, excellent sportsmen and outstanding scientists. We can take on the world and win when it comes to the Americas Cup, discovering DNA, making movies, and writing books but I’ll tell you, in Cambridge, hardly the international headquarters for centre-right philosophy, the one New Zealander whose name is most recognised by those I’ve spoken with – mostly with admiration and, at worst, with curiosity, is Sir Roger Douglas.

Yours in liberty, Deborah Coddington.

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