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'When the forest falls silent'

'When the forest falls silent'


by Veronica Harrod


On November 29 there was a public notice in local community paper Horowhenua Chronicle which stated, "the [Horowhenua district] council has decided not to establish a Maori Ward within the Horowhenua District."

However, almost two weeks later [and yes I am only counting working days] this is the only public statement that has been made to date.

I have waited in vain for what comprises our local media to at least do a cursory interview of council, councillors and local iwi representatives on this decision but all that reigns is silence like Bambi has died in the forest.

As a journalist I am becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of coverage of important local issues that appears to have become the new normal here in communities like Horowhenua and, no doubt, the rest of the country too.

Local community newspapers including the NZME owned "Horowhenua Chronicle" and the Fairfax owned "The Horowhenua Mail" appear to have almost completely abdicated any responsibility to investigate and report independently and impartially, without fear or favour, news in the public interest.

This is not "field of dreams" stuff this was actually what journalists used to do; even journalists who worked for small time papers.

In fact publishing news in the public interest now appears to be regarded as a rather quaint, old fashioned notion out of touch with the commercial realities of media in a digital age.

The owners and shareholders of major media corporates may be concerned with the bottom line but the media has always had an important editorial role to take on those in power and hold them to account for their decisions and actions.

I am sure the major media companies would say this role still is important to them. No doubt NZME and Fairfax are arguing this very rational in support of their continuing fight to be allowed to merge; that merging won't affect their editorial independence or the diversity of voices represented in their traditional and new media platforms.

Bullshit. Readers and those who work or, increasingly, used to work in what comprises the media landscape in this country rarely see news being published without fear or favour anymore and this is the case in an environment where they still are separate entities.

Which begs the question: how much worse is the editorial environment going to be if NZME and Fairfax do win their legal challenge and are given permission to merge? Well, considering the trajectory, the signs are very worrying.

I mean who are these major media companies actually working for? Their own commercial and economic survival alone or for what their survival represents?

If the answer to that question is the latter, what their survival represents, and it represented a return to a respect for those good old fashioned values of an independent editorial that reports without fear or favour, well, I would support a merger.

But it appears all they actually care about is their economic and commercial survival and largely, as communities like ours see unfolding on a day by day basis, at the cost of the communities they are supposed to be representing!

Don't get me wrong. I'm a new media girl from way back having completed my Master of Communications into the impact of the convergence of Information Technology and communications on the media in the Year 2000.

I even started a new media company and showcased early new media video content online in the hope of getting a new media site started locally. I still think fondly of Richard Naylor who started the first broadband network in Wellington and gave me free space on his server to upload digital video clips to.

In other words I sought to apply my knowledge locally but, despite hearing all about how respected innovation and knowledge is, my attempts fell on deaf ears.

Still, that aside, as a new media girl I also love the interactive nature of the new media environment, and letters to the editor represent the best interactive model available to the traditional media.

I still believe there should be a letters to the editor page because letters to the editor facilitate debate and facilitating debate should be a core role of the media for two fundamental and enduring reasons: it is good for democracy and it is good for promoting a diversity of voices.

Except our Fairfax owned Horowhenua Mail doesn't even have a letters to the editor page, for crying out loud, and it is starting to look largely like neither does the NZME Horowhenua Chronicle. Except NZME is smarter, or perhaps it is a joint approach to pull the wool over our eyes. I wouldn't be surprised.

The NZME approach is to spend all the space in the letters to the editor page writing how they want letters to the editor except they then refuse to publish anything critical of the very agencies they should be asking hard questions of.

It is almost like what these small, almost imperceptible, changes represent is an expectation NZME and Fairfax will eventually win their court case challenging the Commerce Commission decision they should not be allowed to merge.

When we wonder why there is such a low turnout at local body elections, or why the same councillors keep getting voted in despite clear evidence they are not serving the community, we have a serious problem and (unfortunately) the local media have become part of that problem.

For a long time now both NZME and Fairfax appear far more concerned with entertaining the masses; almost as if distracting communities from the real issues is the goal. It is a bloody travesty.

We get asked by outsiders, what is going on at your council? This is the role the media used to play. Explaining what is going on, exposing the shortcomings, the falsehoods, the vested interests; sifting the truth from the public relations campaigns the communications gurus working for the local council get paid handsomely to devise.

But instead of reading about issues that matter to the community without fear or favour, such as why the council decided not to establish a Maori Ward in a community with a high population of Maori, we listen as the forest falls silent.


ends

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