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The Role Of The News Media In Safeguarding Democracy - Open Letter To MPs

An Open Letter To All Members Of The New Zealand Parliament

RE: The role of journalism in safeguarding NZ's democracy, in the context of a crowd-funding campaign to establish the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism

From Alastair Thompson, Editor

Dear Members of New Zealand’s Parliament,

In recent weeks two of Parliament's most senior MPs have candidly addressed the role of the media in protecting and safeguarding democracy in New Zealand. They both raised problems that this is causing more widely through NZ society.

In his Valedictory Statement Russell Norman addressed the issue and raised, perhaps the first time in the house, the damage that the economic crisis facing journalism is doing to democracy. “This is a bad thing for all of us and a bad thing for democracy,” he said. "It will take a concerted effort by civil society and those outside of this place as much as those within to make our democracy healthier."

“Democracy is never absolutely secure or finished.” - Russell Norman delivers his Valedictory Statement 22 Oct. 2014

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More recently in a speech to the general debate last week David Cunliffe discussed similar themes around the use and misuse of information and access to information. He focussing particularly on how this Government has been able to - using information management techniques - "screw the scrum", not just in the political sphere but throughout the public service and in the process has degraded NZ's democractic institutions.

"I want to reflect on the means of control," David Cunliffe said. This Govt. is "screwing the scrum" by using a combination of "creeping influence in the media, undermining public service neutrality, politicising community groups and threatening those who object, and the legendary National Party dirty tricks machine."

These issues are not a matter of the routine cycle of politics.

To extend David's analogy, politics cannot be practiced without referees, and at the moment the referees' whistles are struggling to be heard by both players and the crowd.

The Role of the Fourth Estate has historically been to stand as a bulwark against the very kinds of manipulation and information control which are now operating at epidemic levels within New Zealand. While Dirty Politics brought this activity to the forefront of the national debate, the underlying economic issues around the news media which sit behind all this are at least two decades old. The deterioration in the effectiveness of NZ's news media which is now so obvious occurred under Governments across the spectrum.

These days, following central Government's lead it is becoming routine for corporations, lobby groups representing groups of corporations, Government departments and crown entities to also engage in very similar illegitimate efforts to massage the truth and deceive the public.

As Russell Norman says, this is very bad for our democracy and for us all. A government which faces no effective sanction to its misdeeds will soon lead to tyranny.

And for those of you whose focus is purely on the economy it is important to understand that a weak fourth estate is also very bad for business.

In order for free enterprise to flourish, it’s vital that business, political, and civil society enjoys timely access to accurate and trustworthy information.

As a market-led democracy with a robust tradition of free expression, Aotearoa New Zealand has a long-established history of quality news services that have facilitated business-to-business and business-to-government transactions. Transparent and public media provide the fastest and most efficient pathway to achieve resolution of disputes, swiftly address injustice and to support a stable and functioning democracy.

Scoop's Role In Supporting New Zealand's Democracy, Economy & Civil Society

Since 1999, Scoop has furnished Members of Parliament with a reliable news service that carries all their press releases free of charge - including individual ministries, departments, and all political parties inside and outside of Parliament.

Over recent years, however, the impact of digital disruption on the business models of our media has become especially apparent. As digital advertising models are increasingly automated, news publishers have found themselves playing second fiddle to Google and Facebook. Even the largest online publishers can no longer survive on advertising revenue alone. They have had to cut back drastically on their news budgets and the quality of their news coverage has suffered as a direct result.

To break this destructive cycle, Scoop has over the past year built on our 16 years’ experience of providing a free, independent, digital news channel to create a practical solution to this problem.

We cannot save the news media as a whole but we do have a solution which can at least ensure that everybody who is paying attention can keep track of what news-makers such as yourselves are saying.

Without Scoop fulfilling this role NZ's democracy will be the poorer.

Scoop currently enjoys a monthly readership of over half a million, including many of the most influential leaders in New Zealand business, media, and politics. People such as yourselves. We’ve also built a network of thousands of engaged professionals who rely on us to know what’s going on, as well as convey their stories to each other and the world.

Scoop has accepted a challenge to ensure that all citizens continue to have access to the flow of actionable news information they require. But Scoop cannot do this work without support.

Scoop's Solution To It's Small Part Of The "News Crisis"

In May, Scoop launched an innovative business model which we believe provides a sustainable solution to the challenges of scale posed by our relatively small market. In September, we created a charitable trust - Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism.

In the current crowd-funding campaign we are expecting to grow our base of members of the public who have become financial members of the Scoop Foundation to 1000. At the same time we have managed to get 80 organisations and institutions (including Parliament, Treasury, SSC, DIA, MBIE and MFAT and several prominent legal firms) to agree to our assertion of a moral right to derive income from those who make use of our information services for commercial purposes.

This idea could be the breakthrough that enables funding for the provision of quality news services to be provided in New Zealand without recourse to public appropriation, subsidy or regulation. Nobody else in NZ is expected to do their work for free, so why should journalists and news publishers?

In Scoop's case though the fact that the first functioning iteration of this new business model for news has been gifted to a charitable trust means that once it is established this income stream will be used to benefit public interest journalism in an ethical and accountable manner from this day forward.

Most other advanced industrial democracies have already established similar charitable institutions to the Scoop Foundation. The best known examples are the Knight Foundation in the US and the Scott Trust in the UK.

What We Want You - NZ's Members Of Parliament To Do About All This

We’re now seeking the assistance of all our Members of Parliament to help the Scoop Foundation establish a robust endowment for public interest journalism which will help NZ's struggling media face the challenges ahead and incubate a fresh generation of news entrepreneurs.

We want you as Members of Parliament to continue talking about this vital issue and to encourage the public to be concerned about and debate issues around the quality of news services which are publicly available.

If you make speeches about the role of the news media in democracy and the importance of defending democratic institutions will help you get your message to the world through its channels.

The Scoop Foundation's mission includes the purposes of providing an environment in which all aspiring politicians, activists, social and pure-business entrepreneurs have access to the opportunities and connections they need in order to thrive.

To achieve this objective Scoop will need to leverage the assistance of the network which it manages. And at the heart this network is your Parliament, a Parliament that several Scoop staff have been reporting on for more than two decades.

If Scoop’s network is willing to support it through the transition it needs to undertake to complete its introduction of its new "Ethical Paywall" business model then together we can ensure NZ's political and business communities will continue to enjoy both access to a high level of trustworthy news information as well as the ability to tell their own stories.

Our long term objective is to provide a sustainable and lasting legacy to Aotearoa New Zealand, one that connects not only this 51st Parliament to its constituencies, but also the fifty Parliaments beyond that.

Regardless of any particular political affiliation, we believe this is an invaluable aspiration for all New Zealanders, one which all politicians working on behalf of the citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand should embrace.

And as Scoop works towards this objective the present time provides a unique opportunity for our elected representatives to lead by example, by being among the first to contribute in a meaningful manner to the goal of maintaining an informed and strong democracy.

You can find more details about our campaign here -

Yours Sincerely

Alastair Thompson
Scoop Foundation Trustee

© Scoop Media

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